Habits – the good, the bad and the ugly! 11th September 2018

“People do not decide their futures, they decide their habits and their habits decide their futures.” F M Alexander
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“Chains of habits are too light to be felt until they are too heavy too be broken.” Warren Buffett (American Business man, investor, speaker and philanthropist.) (I disagree with the second part of this quote, but thats how it often feels!)

“You’ll never change your life until you change something you do daily. The secret of your success is found in your daily routine.” John C Maxwell (Author and speaker who writes about leadership qualities.)

“Depending on what they are our habits will either make us or break us, we become what we repeatedly do.” Sean Covey ( Author of the ‘7 Habits of Highly Successful…… books)

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit”. Aristotle (Greek Philosopher).

I am having a quote binge! I recently gave an Alexander Technique presentation and was looking for some good quotes about habits, I found the above quotes really interesting. The way we move through life is constructed, in part, through a series of habits (things we do and the way we think). Some of these are useful, some necessary, some inefficient and some down right damaging!

 

 

 

Some of the ‘not so great’ habits I had as a child, I luckily managed to stop, like sucking my thumb, a very difficult habit to break for me. But I was determined to stop before starting secondary school! It was a bitter first lesson in the unconscious power of habits, as I time and again sucked the ‘Stop n’ Grow’ that had been painted on my nail completely unaware that I was putting my thumb in my mouth again. I gradually learnt!

As many broken New Years resolutions show us, changing our habits can be difficult, but not impossible. The key is having a workable strategy and the skills in place to enable us to change. The Alexander Technique teaches us the tools to drop those damaging or inefficient habits and build more efficient and healthy ones. We may come to AT to help our bad back or poor posture, but these habit changing, tension relieving tools are wonderfully transferable skills. They allow us to change all sorts of unhelpful physical and mental habits that then allow us to begin to look after body and mind in an integrated way.

The first step to changing our unhelpful habits is to learn to connect mind and body and be more aware of our bodies and the way our thoughts and emotions influence the way we use them. AT gives space to reconnect, build our embodied awareness so that we can notice what our habits are. This building of awareness or embodied mindfulness is best achieved, as one of the above quotes says, by putting it into our daily routines. Sometimes its helpful to start by choosing a few particular regular activities to be mindful of; for example, brushing your teeth, making a cup of tea, walking up stairs or getting in and out of your car. The activities are short and specific and we can set an intension at the beginning to notice our body and thoughts during the activity and see what happens. We are raising awareness of what we do and think habitually, helpful and unhelpful. This is best done in a very friendly, un-selfcritical, curious and playful way, otherwise we may just become one big frustrated ball of tension! We can remind ourselves that without awareness there are no choices available, no chance to change. Therefore, we need to congratulate ourselves when we notice our habits.

Step 2 – Find space to pause and breathe. Take a moment to be with yourself, ask: am I trying too hard and bringing excess tension to my body? Can I do less? There are also 3 other questions that can be really useful:

Am I seeing? – Am I over focused and tight or can I soften my focus into panoramic vision and see the space around me.

Am I breathing? – Sometimes we maybe holding our breath without realising or be breathing in a shallow way, we may sigh a lot or over do the in-breath. ‘If in doubt, breathe out’ is a useful mantra, as it calms the nervous system. Also, notice what you are up to with you tummy muscles, can you let go and allow your breath to be easier?

Am I balancing? – to be easy and well co-ordinated we need to be free in our joints to rebalance and respond to our changing environment. Is your head balancing lightly? What about your ankles, knees and hips, can they soften a little?

Step 3 – Add in some useful thoughts, or as we Alexander teachers call them, ‘directions’.
-My neck is free.
-My head is balancing lightly.
-My back is lengthening and widening.
-My ankles, knees and hips are free. -My shoulders are resting and widening away from each other.

or my thoughts for children

-My head is like a floaty balloon.
-My shoulders are like runny custard
-My body is soft and tall.

This process – over time – guided by an AT teacher – releases us from the grip of our unhelpful habits and allows us to create a new, more poised, free, considered way of being. You can change your habits, there is no magic pill, just the daily cultivation of mindful awareness of body, mind and emotions through AT and its well worth the commitment. For more information about lessons or to book please email me using the form on the contact page.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Alexander Technique helps improve your posture, does that matter? – 5th July 2018

Alexander Technique teachers often have a problem with the word posture! It might have something to do with the fact that often, when we are talking to someone and they find out what we teach, they straighten up and pull themselves into a military style posture all tight and uncomfortable. They have heard that we are something to do with teaching ‘good posture’ and we, the posture police, are ready to judge them for slouching!

This idea of holding yourself in the correct position is often thought of as ‘good posture’

relaxation-1967892_1920but this is definitely not what we teach. So, as a consequence, we sometimes ‘throw the baby out with the bath water’ and reject the word posture altogether. My feeling is that we need to take a page out of Humpty Dumpty’s book 😀 (in Through the Looking Glass). He says ‘When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less’. We can redefine what we as AT teachers mean as posture, after all most of us have the right gist about what ‘good posture’ is and that it might be good for us, but generally we don’t know how to achieve it without a lot of pulling, pushing and excess tension.

I am reading a great meditation book at the moment (I read and meditate regularly) and in it there is a description of ‘good posture’, it has great resonance with the Alexander Technique.

‘Good posture…puts the body into a position wherein it’s energies tend to circulate in a bright and calm way. The ‘good’ of good posture is not about an outward appearance; it’s that which remedies stagnation or tension. However, the balanced alertness of good posture doesn’t come around through bodily effort alone. It is a matter of settling the body into balance with a steady and sensitive attitude. The patience and care with which we develop good posture is a development for the mind in its own right: rather than forcing ourselves to sit up straight, we’re learning to massage, give and relax our attention to attune to a poised alertness……a moment-by-moment application is needed.’ Ajahn Sucitto, Meditation, A Way of Awakening.

I teach people good posture by giving the tools they need to use their bodies in a poised, balanced and well co-ordinated way. AT provides a practical way of reducing excess tension (that can be a physical response to stress). This can improve health and the way we function. These skills allow us to look better (have better posture) and feel more at ease and confident in ourselves. Having ‘good’ posture as I define it aids free, efficient, pain free movement and gives grace and reduces effort we need to achieve our goals.
Good posture is not just important for aesthetic reasons or for our physical wellbeing, the way we use our bodies affects the way we think. We are psychophysical beings, there is no real separation between mind, body and emotions. AT trains both the body and mind, we can use the body to calm and positively affect our mind (as well as the other way round). We know that mindfulness meditation can lead to feeling more relaxed physically; but if we use our bodies in a poised, calm and balanced way we can bring calm and clarity to the mind.

In a fascinating book I read a couple of years ago (How the Body Knows it’s Mind by Sian Beilock) there are many examples of this body to mind influence. One short example that stands out is ‘when you are in a slumped position you don’t feel as good about your accomplishments, such as how you just performed at a presentation. Simply assuming a happy or sad bodily posture, a confident or anxious mien, conveys to your brain what emotional state we are in.’ Emotions are expressed in the body as changes in physical tension, destructive emotions adding tension to our system. But the good news is that with the embodied awareness AT teaches, we can recognise these reactions and use our thinking to change our bodies and relieve this tension enabling us to look, feel better and move better.

‘Good posture’ is so much more than just standing up straight, achieved through the skills Alexander Technique empowers us with, it’s leads to improved physical and mentally wellbeing.

If you would like to find out about ways to learn AT  contact me via the contacts page.

 

 

 

 

 

Prehabilitation and Rehabilitation and the Alexander Technique – 7th June 2018

Alexander Technique is becoming contagious in my family! Firstly my mother raised my interest in Alexander Technique after having lessons andknee-1406964_1920 this was the reason I gave it a go, now it’s my Dad’s turn. He has seen the changes Mum and I have made over the years, observed the benefits we have experienced (some of which are explained in my May blog; Sciatica, a pain in the butt…and one of the reasons I came to the Alexander Technique – 9th May 2018), but never quite understood what AT was. Dad thought it was a bit like physiotherapy and although he listened when I explained, somewhere along the way the full nature of the beast never really made a connection. Not feeling the needed to convert everyone I knew into AT lovers I left it that!
Over the last year however, my Dad, who injured his knee quite badly in his twenties playing rugby, has been experiencing more and more problems with that joint. His knee became painful, its mobility much reduced and it was having a significant effect on the way he was standing, walking and moving in general. It began to have a knock on effect on his hip and lower back too, creating pain and discomfort in those areas too. He thought it might help to give AT a go, so I started giving him a few lessons to see if it could make things a little more comfortable while he was having his knee assessed by the doctors to see what might be the best way forward. Dad recently commented ‘Now I get it’, fantastic! There is nothing like experiencing Alexander Technique to really understand what it offers.

Pain creates muscular tension, tension and pain produce habits of movement and body use that are trying to avoid further pain, but often inadvertently produce more or exasperate the situation. The body gets pulled out of balance and different muscles try to compensate for all the inbalances throughout the body. If, for example, our knee had pain, we may transfer our weight onto the other leg, but this then causes the upper body to try and re-balance and produces a pulling down towards the injured side. This pattern was very visible in my Dad, however he was unaware of this habit. Through the gentle hands-on teaching and mirror work of AT however, he has become more aware of this habit, amongst others, and is able to pause and direct into a more poised stature. He is also learning to recognise and reduce some of the excess tension he was using to stand up ‘straight’, and has found a more soft and tall option, which is less effort.
IMG_2735As it happens Dad is going to have a knee replacement soon, so in the mean time we are working with AT as a prehabilitation (a process of optimising physical functionality preoperatively to enable the individual to maintain a normal level of function during and after surgery). If, due to pain we have created habits of use that are leading to less coordinated and balanced movement, then (as these habits are often strongly held and unconscious), even after a knee replacement and a cessation of pain the same habits may persist and hamper the rehabilitation process.
Dad and I are working with the habits, creating more embodied awareness of them and I am teaching him skills to pause, and choose a more balanced approach to moving and being, so that he can stay as mobile as possible now and post operatively he has the best chance of a full and healthy recovery, which will help reduce the strain on the rest of his body. (He is certainly staying very mobile and regularly beats my steps per day on our fitbits!)

This embodied learning process can help with many injuries and problems and its worth thinking about learning Alexander Technique’s empowering skills to help reduce stress through the rest of your body if you are suffering with specific joint problems (not just for the joint itself), or as a way of getting ahead of the game with prehab before an operation. Then use it as part of the rehab afterwards.

For more information on the Alexander Technique and the way I teach go to www.alextechwithesther.co.uk or call or email me on the links at the top of the page.

Sciatica, a pain in the butt…and one of the reasons I came to the Alexander Technique – 9th May 2018

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Sciatica can be a real pain in the butt, and down the leg or legs, and into the feet, its awful, I know from experience. In my late 20’s I was a personal fitness trainer. I had always been sporty a competitive swimmer, part of the school teams for athletics, netball and basketball, I trained with weights, was strong and flexible. Ever since my teens, however, I had also suffered with reoccurring bouts of lower back pain. Not too frequently, but when it arrived it was very uncomfortable, I took anti-inflammatories and had physiotherapy and it then seemed to subside again until the next time!

Being Fitness Manager of a private gym I had to assess the instructors’ classes, during this time I injured myself and experienced sciatica for the first time. I was in the middle of an ‘abs blast class’, the instructor performed a controversial, advanced abdominal exercise and rather than saying no to doing it, I thought ‘just be careful, don’t make a fuss!’ Well, bad decision. My back reacted and over the next few days it got worse. It wasn’t just back pain this time, but pain in my butt and down my right leg and into my foot – pain and pins and needles. This carried on for weeks, then months. I had regular physio, but I was on my feet all day and in pain, it just didn’t get better. I went through cycles of weekly physio where I would feel worse after treatment, then felt better, then needed treatment again the next week, as I was back to square one. This was not to say the physio wasn’t helpful, but I couldn’t rest and was building habits of body-use that were symptomatic of the pain I was experiencing, which unknown to me were exasperating the sciatica.

I had received a few lessons before becoming a personal trainer, but it wasn’t until my son was born, that the sciatica became worse again so I decided enough was enough and went back to lessons. I was drawn to AT because I knew I was learning skills to help myself rather than relying on a physio to always fix me. I became a student rather than a patient.

As my embodied awareness improved and with the hands on help of a great teacher, certain things became clear to me:
-I had not recognised the habits of body use I had inadvertently created (due to the pain) which were also aggravating the sciatica. The way I was using myself was affecting the way I functioned (which is one of Alexander’s Principles).
-My first step was to become aware of the excess tension I carried in my legs, butt and abs in particular. I also noticed my habit of shifting weight onto my left leg, and in sitting, my left sitting bone. This in turn shifted my balance with the result that my body was pulled down towards the painful side, and my head tilted that way too. My right foot was also turned out and I stood with my right foot in advance of the left one.
-I had faulty sensory appreciation (another of Alexander’s Principles and unique to the technique). I was so used to moving in my habitual way, it felt right and balanced! In fact when my teacher first brought me into balance it felt like all my weight was on my right leg instead and my body and head were tilting to the left.
-I noticed the reduction in tension that this change allowed, releasing the tension caused by pulling down. I was not pulling or stretching up the collapsed side, it was an absence of tension and direction I was experiencing non-doing(another AT principle). A FM Alexander said ‘If you stop doing the wrong thing the right thing will do itself’.
-Also I became aware of the very long term habit I had of standing and sitting in a ‘military’ type posture. Shoulders back, chest out, arching my lowers back and lifting my chin. This had been my habit since primary school. My Mum encouraging me not to slouch with those classic military directions. She was round shouldered and didn’t want my sister and I to follow suit. Influenced by her Father, a Sargent Major in the Commando’s in WWII, she was passing on the advice she had ignored and regretted! (Later, however, my Mum had AT lessons too, in fact before I did, which completely changed her posture. Mum lost her round shoulders entirely and grew 1inch!). I learnt to pause, inhibit my old habits and direct, allowing my back to lengthen and widen. I found checking in a mirror very helpful. My faulty sensory appreciation made me feel as though I was slouching forward, where as in fact I was standing in balance with my shoulders widening away from each other.

This was the beginning of the empowering process of embodied awareness which the Alexander Technique teaches and at last I was able to actively help myself and reduce the effects of sciatica and lower back pain. I could move with awareness and direction and create less stress and more poise and co-ordination in my body. Alexander Technique is a practice like meditation, and I have embedded this into my life, it’s always there to help me.

For more information about Alexander Technique, back pain, and other ways it can help and empower you contact me to have a chat and/or to book a consultation and first lesson.

Learn to Destress and Unwind with the Alexander Technique

IMG_2408We have probably all been slightly stressed from time to time. We can put ourselves under pressure or feel pressurised by external situations; jobs, household stuff, exam pressure or illness, to name just a few possibilities. This low to moderate level stress can leave us feeling tired, tight (especially our neck, shoulders and back), not quite our usual selves and reduces our emotional resilience. We may have even experienced deeper episodes of stress or a feeling of anxiety in particular situations. This is all normal and part of the human condition. (I have experienced both stress and anxiety at different times, in my mid twenties I had a period where I suffered with panic attacks and later in my early thirties the lose of someone close to me had a deeper impact.) Our bodies are well designed to cope with short periods of stress or anxiety, but problems tend to occur if we get stuck in a habitually stressed and anxious state. Something we often don’t recognise, it creeps up on us!

The Alexander Technique, along with my meditation practice, have proved to be great tools to combat the effects of stress and anxiety. I find them empowering and calming. The Alexander Technique gives me ways to help myself release excess tension in my body. It also gives me greater understanding of my physical, mental and emotional reactions to stress and anxiety. Mediation and AT skills allows me the opportunity to ‘check in with my body’, by increasing my embodied awareness, I notice my habitual reactions, pause and think of the techniques I have learnt, so I don’t get stuck.

Alexander Technique has been part of the training on offer in many top music colleges and conservatories since the 1950’s, one of the reasons is its proven usefulness in combating performance anxiety. We may not suffer from performance anxiety as musicians do, but we do experience ‘everyday performance’, times when we are in different situations outside of our comfort zone, AT is therefore, a useful technique for all. In a recent article ‘Research Reveals How To Deal With Negative Emotions’ by Matt Bodnar, he writes that there are two reasons to learn to handle our destructive emotions (e.g. stress and anxiety) well; performance and peace of mind. Alexander Technique skills certainly prove useful for both.

Alexander Technique lessons teach us how to deal more effectively with all life’s stimuli; physical, mental and emotional. Therefore it’s very interested in our flight, fright, freeze response, the ‘startle reflex’. This is the response that we often get stuck in with the pressures of modern day living. The ‘startle reflex’ is a helpful and appropriate response to sudden danger that should only last a short period of time. As Elissa Epel PhD* put it recently in an interview with Rick Hanson PhD** during The Resilience Summit, if this becomes a chronic condition it can have the same potent long term effects as smoking on our bodies! This increases physical tension and changes our breathing pattern, increases blood pressure and stimulates the sympathetic nervous system (making us hyper vigilant or on edge). It also increases the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. These responses left unchecked can damage our bodies as well as reducing our ability to think clearly. But the good news is that by learning to look after ourselves with mind-body techniques such as AT, we can undo the damage created by bouts of stress and also reduce its effects when we experience stressful situations in the future.

As well as learning to be more aware of our thoughts, emotions and bodies, in an open, curious and self compassionate way, the Alexander Technique offers us other tools to reduce the effects of stress and anxiety and empowers us to become more resilient.

1) It gives us an understanding of how to release excess tension and bring our bodies into greater poise and balance, this brings better co-ordination throughout our whole bodies enabling us to function better. This is Alexander’s principle of use affects function, if we function better, we feel better and improve our wellbeing in general.

2) It teaches us how to carry out ‘constructive rest’ 10 mins to stop and check in with ourselves, allowing our bodies to release and rest. Click here to find out more about how to practice this.

3) Lastly, it teaches a procedure called The Whispered ‘Ah’, a breathing exercise. This is brilliant for many reasons, but in terms of stress reduction, it helps us to think about breathing in a different way. We focus on doing the out-breath, and allowing the in-breath to do itself. This out-breath focus lets the parasympathetic nervous system be more engaged, which calms us. (Also, as an aside, in a recent presentation I attended by a local sound healing practitioner, when she was asked what sound she thought was the most healing, in her opinion it was an ‘ah’ sound!). For more details on the Whispered Ah, click here.

If you would like to find out more about how the Alexander Technique can help you, email or call me using the details at the top of the page. I will be very happy to answer any questions you have or to book you in for a consultation and lesson.

*expert in the effects of stress on our bodies.
**Senior Fellow of the Greater Good Science Centre at UC Berkley, psychologist and meditation teacher.

Monkeying Around in the Garden

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Gardening is one of my favourite hobbies. I love being creative, seeing my garden change throughout the year, being physical and getting some time to myself in peace. From an Alexander Techniquepoint of view, it’s also a great way of being mindful in activity, and think about my habits and pausing to think how to look after myself as I’m pottering around digging, pruning, racking and picking out the weeds!
My lovely Mum, another keen gardener (and long time Alexander Technique pupil, it’s my Mum who go me into AT!), recently brought my attention to an interesting article in the RHS (Royal Horticultural Society) magazine. The article is entitled ‘Digging Techniques: what you should and shouldn’t do’. They say that ‘The nations 27 million gardeners are at risk if they use bad digging technique’. Yes, yes, yes, this is exactly what we say in Alexander Technique. It’s not what you do but how you are doing it that can create problems.

The researchers at Coventry University used motion capture technology, similar to that used in the movies, to map the movement of gardeners while digging and measure the loads imposed on their bodies; joints, bones and muscles.

The finding of the study confirms what I understand as an Alexander Technique teacher and know through experience (as someone who has suffered with lower back pain and sciatica in the past). Bending through our backs (thinking we have a waist joint) and not using and bending our leg joints enough puts a great strain on our bodies.

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The Alexander Technique teaches us the skills to understand how our bodies work best, in a more coordinated, poised and freer way. The way we use our bodies affects the way they function. It’s a bit like having a car and only driving around in first gear, you wouldn’t be surprised if it eventually broke down.
We teach different skills that allow us to do this:-

Body Mapping
Body mapping gives us a more visceral and accurate map of our skeleton, joints and muscles and how they move and work.

Mindfulness in activity
We teach pupils about the importance of being mindful of our bodies while we are doing what we a doing. We learn to ‘stay with the means where-by’ as FM Alexander put it. So, rather than being only focused on the end result so that we don’t care or don’t notice how we mindlessly get there (which is often how we injure ourselves). We learn to in be present, noticing our habits good or bad, efficient or inefficient. It gives us the choice to look after ourselves while digging or weeding or mowing the lawn!

Monkey
We teach something called ‘Monkey’, which FM Alexander called a ‘position of mechanical advantage’. All it is, is a way of bending, picking things up or squatting, something that young children do naturally, but we often forget about. It teaches us exactly the digging technique they found to be advantageous in the RHS article. How to keep our backs long and wide, our necks free and bend through our ankles, knees and hips while staying balanced.

So if you want to monkey around in your garden, and dig in a way that’s safe for your back and neck give Alexander Technique lessons a go, learn ways you can prevent injury and techniques that are applicable to all aspects of our lives, not just gardening.
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