Alexander Lessons ONLINE

I have been teaching online during the COVID-19 Pandemic. I had the time to complete a ‘Teaching AT online’ CPD and am now in the process of finishing the advanced module. Teaching online may not have therapeutic hands-on but it does have other amazing benefits. I have been pleasantly surprised how effect it is and also how empowered it makes students feel. I teach 1-2-1 and a small group constructive lie down class connecting with students not just from my regular practice, but internationally! That’s the power of online! If you would like to find out more about my online lessons contact me for more information and book a FREE 30 mins taster session to see how it can work for you.

 

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Breath and Ease – Part 3. Breathing and Emotional Wellbeing- February Blog 2020

stressThe number of articles on this subject has exploded in recent years and many different modalities use breath as a way to improve mental wellbeing and create bodily ease. Scientific evidence has elucidated the body/mind feedback loop. We have a better understanding, biologically and neurologically of the reasons why many of the ancient practices such as medication, yoga and Tai Chi used breath focused activities to enhance wellbeing. These studies bring a clearer comprehension and appreciation of the body/mind connection and to why it helps to bring attention to the body and breath to improve mental ease.

B. Grace Bullock Ph.D. (a psychologist) wrote about this in a recent article in The Greater Good Magazine (published by the Greater Good Science Centre UC Berkley). She wrote ‘It helps regulate our nervous system’ and states that scientific studies show ‘paced breathing also uses neutral networks beyond the brain stem that are tied to emotion, attention and body awareness’. Therefore, breath work is a great way of regulating our response to stress.

When we breathe rapidly there is an increased activity in the amygdala (the area of the brain that is responsible for the perception of emotions) as well as other networks in the brain. Quick breathing rates trigger feelings like anxiety, fear and anger. It engages the sympathetic nervous system involved in the flight, fright and freeze response. On the other hand, it is possible to reduce the feelings of fear and anxiety by slowing down our breath and focusing on extending the out breath. This helps to preferentially engage the parasympathetic nervous system which helps us relax.

Learning to gently attend to our breath and body and its subtle movement (created by easy free breathing) has another positive effect on our mental wellbeing. As Susan Bauer writes in ‘The Embodied Teen’ ‘Recent studies have demonstrated that people with higher levels of body awareness exhibit greater resilience, as they tend to recognise physical signs of stress earlier on and take steps to alleviate it, rather than allowing it to build up to the point of strain and illness’.

Alexander Technique lessons build greater embodied awareness and teach practical tools to reduce excess muscle tension and give more ease and poise – allowing easy breathing (or vice-versa). Alexander Technique is an early warning system for stress and strain. We become more attuned to what our bodies are trying to tell us, instead of the first signs that something’s wrong being pain and injury. We learn to notice discomfort or even better realise when we can be better co-ordinated in body, mind and emotions. This helps improve wellbeing, it allows us to consciously choose how to respond to stimuli and situations around us with greater mental, emotional and physical ease.

By learning and practicing the Alexander Technique we are cultivating 3 ways of improving our mental wellbeing;

1. By noticing changes in our breath and body (eg. muscle tension) and understanding these changes in different situations we develop interoceptive awareness (the awareness of inner body sensations, involving the sensory process of receiving, accessing and appraising internal bodily signals) which helps us become more resilient.

2. By breathing easy and using our bodies with greater ease and poise we are learning to lower the general everyday activation of the sympathetic nervous system and feel less anxious and on edge.

3. Then when in tricky situations we have a greater sense of agency. We can stay embodied, feel physical more poised and choose to pause and focus on the pace of our breath and movement of our body. This engages the parasympathetic nervous system and helps us to relax.

For more information on the Alexander Technique and lessons click here. The best way to learn the Alexander Technique is by having lessons with a qualified teacher, to find an Alexander Technique teacher near you go to STAT (The Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique) or www.alexander technique.com.

Breath and Ease – Part 2 -Breathing and Physical Wellbeing – January Blog 2020

swimmerBreathing well is important both for our physical and mental wellbeing, both are intertwined, as I mentioned in my last blog. We cannot separate mind and body, there is always an interplay, we work as a whole.Saying that, I am going to try and focus more on the physical wellbeing side of breathing in this blog. Lets see how it goes! It’s useful to have an accurate idea of the mechanism of breathing within your body, we don’t need to get too technical, even seeing an animation of the movement of the body with the breath is helpful. Jessica Wolf an American Alexander Technique Teacher has produced a great animation called ‘The Art of Breathing’, here is a brief demo of the video.

As you can see from the video, the movement of the ribs and the diaphragm (the first large sheet on muscle you see added to the skeleton) are responsible for breath, they work with the appropriate tone of the abdominal muscles. The ribs provide part of the structure of attachment and support for the back and torso muscles. While breathing easy we can notice the lower ribs moving up and out to a greater extent than in the upper ribs. The ribs form joints with the vertebrae in the spine. Free movement of the ribs and spine allow movement essential to breathing. If there is excess tension and postural ‘distortion’ this can often lead to the ribs being fixed and rigid, this makes the diaphragm do too much work, and have a negative affect on our breathing.

Different Ways Breathing Affects our Physical Wellbeing.

1. Breathing ‘well’ improves our posture, with a body that is free and poised, the spine, ribs and muscles of the torso to move and work freely, including the diaphragm. Breathing in this way, our ‘posture’ is improved. If, on the other hand, we have scrunched up our shoulders, slouched and sagged in the middle of our spines or excessively hold in our tummy muscles, we will find in very difficult to breathe fully and with ease. Have a go see what you notice? As an embodied awareness tool I often use three questions to help us come back to the body and our surroundings. ‘Am I seeing, am I breathing and am I Balancing’ (I have mentioned this is previous blogs). Am I breathing (with ease)? is a great way of checking in or pausing to send our body some Alexander thoughts or directions making ease and poise more possible. Note, even excessive tension in the legs can have a knock on effect on our breathing, again experiment, see what you notice if you brace your legs in standing? The hands on work of Alexander Technique teachers is really valuable as it allows us to be more aware of tension patterns on our body and whether we are free to move and breathe.

2. Aerobic fitness and exercise, for example; walking, jogging and swimming; use the large muscle groups of the body to move at a steady, rhythmic pace. Aerobic exercise uses both our heart and lungs, improves endurance and helps our bodies use oxygen more efficiently and in time can improve your breathing. However, knowing how easy full breath works, can aid the process. For example, if we have a habit of shallow breathing through the upper chest and shoulders and try and improve aerobic fitness we may find we get breathless very easily. If, on the other hand, we think of the lower ribs having the largest movement within the rib cage and understand the movement of the diaphragm, it can aid fuller breath which will make aerobic exercise easier.

3. Breathing well aids digestion, ok, this benefit is really difficult to separate from the mind, its best understood psychophysically. The ‘flight, fright, freeze’ response to danger or stress interferes with digestion (amongst other things). It takes blood away from the guts to the large muscles of the body, so we are ready for action. It also restricts our natural breathing patterns and tightens the muscles of our torso. Our sympathetic nervous system is activated and ready for action. This is a good thing when in dangerous situations, our mind/body is looking after us. However, if we are dealing with a lot of stress over time, we can be stuck in this ‘activated’ state, which can have an effect on our digestive system. We can learn to reverse the effects of stress by consciously focusing on our breathing. If we take time to regularly focus more on our out breath, extending it, so that it’s longer than the in-breath, we activate the parasympathetic nervous system. This relaxing side of the nervous system helps us rest and digest! In Alexander Technique we teach a breathing exercise called The Whispered ‘Ah’ which aids this process. This, along with practicing constructive rest, can have a beneficial effects on our digestion.

These are of course not the only ways breathing affects physical wellbeing, just three that I wish to share in this blog. To learn more about how the Alexander Technique can help you please contact me via the buttons at the top of the page.

Breath and Ease – Part 1. December 2019

recycle-1000785_1920Breathing easy, such an integral part of the Alexander Technique self-care skills developed within lessons. It is a psychophysical (mind-body) process which, with a little awareness we can notice. Our thinking and emotions can change our breathing patterns and our breathing patterns can change the way we feel and think. It’s also mostly an unconscious process, however we can consciously choose to alter our breathing patterns. It’s fascinating that altering our breathing patterns can be a powerful way of enhancing our wellbeing. I like to be aware of the latest thinking in mind-body wellbeing and try to read widely about other disciplines. Breathing patterns are used to enhance wellbeing across many disciplines including meditation, yoga, CBT for anxiety and trauma therapy. AT offers a very holistic approach. We create greater embodied awareness and understanding of the physical mechanisms for breathing easy and bring an appreciation of the mind-emotion influence on the process. This, with our hands-on teaching and breathing practices empowers students to influence their breathing patterns and enhance their mind-body wellbeing. As an Alexander Technique teacher I see when students find ease and poise within their body it allows easy, full and natural breath which has a powerful and immediate effect on how someone feels (mentally and physically). Then, through the experiential learning within lessons students, over time, acquire greater understanding of breath and the breathing self-care skills which gives long term benefits having a beneficial influence on their overall wellbeing.

My relationship with breath has changed over my lifetime. In my youth I spent many hours rhythmically breathing while swimming training, and training my lung capacity in sprint competitions and other cardiovascular sports. In my mid 20’s I went through a period of suffering with panic attacks, with its associated hyperventilation (which left me feeling as though I was having a heart attack). However, at the same time I was also a big gym goer and I realised that no matter how hard the workout or aerobics class I never felt panicky or hyperventilated, which was reassuring. Later, when I first began to explore meditation about 25 years ago, I struggled with observing my breath and the fear of this observation slipping into hyperventilation and panic. Finally, over the last 15 years or so with my mindfulness meditation and Alexander Technique practice my understanding, experience and relationship has developed. I find I can use my breath to relax and calm both mind and body and improve my focus.

In this blog (Part 1) and the next two blogs (Parts 2 and 3) I will share my thoughts and ideas with you on:

1. Mindfulness of breath
2. Breathing and physical wellbeing
3. Breathing and emotional wellbeing*

(* I acknowledge breath is psychophysical, these blogs are just to emphasis different aspects of breathing.)

Part 1 – Mindfulness of Breath.

What are our breathing habits and patterns?

Our breath is continually changing with different activities, emotions and thoughts or through illness. It may be obvious in certain circumstances, but not others. When I sit quietly to meditate I am taking time to be and do nothing, although my breath steadies, with mindful attention of body and thought I can notice the more subtle ways my breath changes. I might be gently paying attention to the breath and a thought of some future event arises which I may perceive as stressful in that moment. I notice my body tense slightly and my breathing pattern change. As the thought is allowed to pass the body and breath ease again.

What are your habits? – Remembering this is a friendly, non-judgemental enquiry.

-Do you nose or mouth breathe?
-Do you hold your breath when concentrated or stressed?
-Do you find yourself gasping or sighing?
-Where do you feel the most movement in your body when you are breathing?
-Does that change if you try and breathe more deeply?

Experiment by lightly bringing your attention to the breath when you are in different activities. For example;
-Working at your computer
-in a meeting at work
-public speaking
-meditating
-singing
-exercising.
The idea of this experiment is to observe without influence or trying to change anything. Certain activities like singing make us feel good, partly due to the long out breathe we create in the process. Swimming is also great for regulating the breath and lung capacity. Other activities that may make us feel nervous, like public speaking, it can make us feel as though we don’t have enough breath! On the other hand, we may love being in front of a crowd and be in our element! AT lessons, help us be aware and understand our habitual reactions and can alleviate less helpful patterns.

Mindful breath exercise (5 mins, extend if you wish)

There are no Alexander ‘exercises’ per say, but we do have an important practice called ‘constructive rest’ which is very beneficial when undertaken regularly, even if it’s just 10 mins a day. It has many benefits including allowing good spinal alignment, it helps release excess muscular tension and improves digestion. It’s also a great way of stopping and giving yourself 10 mins to come back to your body and build greater embodied awareness. With this in mind, I shall talk you through how to incorporate mindfulness of breath into constructive rest. Please Click here for basic instructions and a short video to set up your constructive rest.

-Once comfortably lying in the semi-supine position place both hands softly on the junction of your lower ribs and belly, so you can notice both. Allow your palms to have open contact and let your fingers and thumbs softly lengthen. Normally with constructive rest it is useful to keep your eyes open, however, for this exercise you may wish to close your eyes. If you feel sleepy, keep them open!
-Bring gentle attention to the rise and fall of your abdomen and expansion and release of your lower rib cage under your hands, without trying to create more movement or change anything, just notice. Rest your attention there for a while.
-Bring your attention to your mouth and nose, if comfortable, allow your lips to softly come together and allow the breath in and out through your nostrils.
-Bring your attention to any sensations of air and breath at and in your nostrils.
NOTE: it is natural for your mind to wonder from this attention. If you notice you have drifted into thought, note ‘thought’, and gently bring your attention back to your body as a whole and then to your breath at the abdomen.
-After a few minutes change the position of one of your hands. Place one hand on the middle of your chest, leaving the other on your rib cage -belly junction and take some time to notice the movement of the breath under each hand, and then the whole torso.
-Now change the position of your hand on the middle of your chest. Move it higher up, where your sternum (the breast bone joining your ribs at the front) joins to both your collar bones. Leave the other hand on your rib cage-belly area. Notice the movement created by your breath, under your hands at the top and bottom of your torso.
-Place both your hands back on your lower ribs-belly junction and widen you attention to your whole body and notice any movement created by your breath.
-To finish, if you have your eyes closed, open them and blink a few times. Allow your attention to include your surroundings.

For more information about the Alexander Technique and lessons please contact me using the buttons at the top of the page.

More qualities, attitudes and thoughts that make change easier -October 2019

People generally come to the Alexander Technique because they want to change or improve something. Posture, back pain, performance, anxiety or playing an

IMG_0194instrument, there are many possibilities, as AT can be thought of as the ‘how to allow greater ease, poise and better co-ordination’ in anything relating to mind, body and emotions.  In my experience to create the conditions for effective change, or to be open to learning new things we need to attend to our attitudes and thoughts around change, which can be habitual, unconscious and as ingrained as our physical habits of being and doing.

 

In one of my first blogs, December 2017, I wrote about 3 Important Qualities that Allow Change’. Inquisitiveness, self-compassion and our willingness of be with the unfamiliar. Now I would like to expand on this theme  and share my thoughts arising from my own experience of learning and teaching AT. In my teaching room I have a quote attributed to Einstein ‘We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when creating them’. In other words we need to be open to thinking differently if we want change to occur.

  • In Alexander Technique lessons we teach principles which create a different way of thinking about how we work, rest and play that allow better poise, ease and co-ordination. This means we learn to free ourselves of unhelpful habits and create more helpful ways of doing the things we do. However, change can be strangely scary, as well as of course exciting, and both emotionally and physically a little uncomfortable due to its unfamiliar nature. Consciously we may feel we want to embrace change, but unconsciously we may resist it. ‘Better the devil you know’ may be lurking in the back of our minds undermining us, as it craves the comfort of the familiar, even if the familiar is pain. I think it is really useful to acknowledge this unconscious resistance that may occur during the learning process, and treat ourselves with compassion if we notice it occurring. It’s important for students to know the process of change is under our control, we can choose the speed of the change and make sure transitions are as emotionally and physically comfortable as possible. In fact many studies show that the best, long term changes of habits occur when we allow change in small and steady increments over a period of time. 
  • In AT lessons we experience a different way of learning from what we may be used to. It is not just an intellectual process, but more importantly it’s experiential. We can not learn Alexander Technique purely from books, we have to play with the principles, which hands on teaching makes possible, and learn to embody it through our physical participation without over analysis. It’s similar to meditation in that way, it is a practice, no matter how much we might read about and have a theoretical understanding of meditation, we will not gain true understanding until you sit down and have a go! Learning to play an instrument and or mastering any sport is another example of experiential learning. The experiential part of learning is primary, and the intellectual is there quietly in the background, supporting the process. Alexander teachers encourage a ‘quietening’ of mind and body to allow application of the principles in activity. This in turn allows students real ‘aha’ moments when theory becomes a known reality and we gain true understanding.
  • When we learn experientially in particular, it’s important to feel ok with getting things ‘wrong’, we have to risk it. We learn so much from allowing this process of exploration to unfold, and all experience informs our learning. If we only try get things ‘right’ we stifle learning and create emotional and physical tension. Its helpful to reflect on our attitude to learning. Do we worry about what we might label ‘making mistakes’? If this is the case, possibly as a result of earlier education experiences, can we let go of this belief and give ourselves permission to be experimental and have compassion towards the part of us that doesn’t like getting things ‘wrong’. 
  • Following on from above, notice self-critical and negative thoughts, understand their power and negative influence on learning and change. Actively choose to compassionately note when they arise in the learning process and replace them with more helpful, constructive ways of thinking. We may often talk to ourselves in far harsher terms than we would ever talk to a friend, mistakenly thinking its the spur we need to change. Less judgement, more compassion. Ultimately, it has the opposite effect and can just make us feel bad about ourselves.  If we only notice what goes ‘wrong’ have a go at a ‘positive, negative, positive sandwich’. For example, notice something that went ‘well’, something that can be ‘improved’ and create a self-compassionate intention to work with that going forward. All experience is valuable, You only have to watch a toddler learning to walk. They don’t think to themselves, I am rubbish at this walking, I’m not going to bother, stick to what I’m good at, fast crawling! No- they endlessly experiment with great curiosity and tenacity until eventually they are running around! They have a wonderful ability just to be with the process, its all play, this sense of playfulness such a useful attitude for us to come back to as adults. Rediscover the joyful side of learning and changing.

To find out more about lessons, please contact me using the contact button at the bottom of the page. or go to The Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique to find a teacher near to you.

Alexander Technique Week 2019 14th-20th October 2019

Richard

War veteran speaks out to help others understand ‘Where’s your head at?’

Richard Marsden, a Falklands veteran who suffers from PTSD, has joined forces with the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique (STAT) to help people learn about the connection between mental and physical health.

The 59-year-old, who also saw active service in Northern Ireland and was on duty at both the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana and the funeral of Earl Mountbatten, didn’t realise he’d been suffering with PTSD until years after his military career finished.
To mark Alexander Technique Week (14-20 October) Richard wants to share his story in the hope that others who might be struggling with emotional and physical pain are encouraged to talk about their feelings and seek help.

He says: “I reached the rank of Sergeant and packed a lot into military life. I loved the camaraderie and variety of work but left because symptoms were starting to manifest which weren’t properly diagnosed until 26 years later.

“After 12 years in the forces I really struggled with life on ‘civvy street’. Despite doing well in my job, daily life was becoming too difficult and eventually I had to give up work. What I also didn’t realise at the time, was my mind was still in military mode – I was metaphorically marching around approaching everything as if I was still in the army. The resulting mix gave me both physical and mental health issues; I had spinal problems, was unable to work and my marriage broke down. I was actually only diagnosed with PTSD five years ago.”

Richard tried various therapies to help with both his back and mental health to no avail when someone recommended the Alexander Technique. He quickly learned that being conscious of how his head balanced on his spine, his neck muscles relaxed and he became less stiff. He learnt to move more efficiently. He became aware of his breathing and learned to recognise and let go of emotions associated with stress such as anger, fear and despair.

He continues: “By practising the Alexander Technique, I have learned to let both the functional movements and mental mindset of the military go and now have a much better quality of life. I fully support STAT’s ‘Where’s your head at?’ campaign as it perfectly illustrates that how your head is on the inside is intrinsically linked to how your head is poised on the outside.”

I think Richard’s story is an inspiration to anyone who feels that they too would like to learn how to change their physical and thinking habits. In six Alexander lessons you can kick start a series of changes that will stay with you for life.

One of the first things I teach is how to lie in the semi-supine position. It allows your head to rest at an optimum position, relaxes the muscles in your back and gives you mindful ‘time out’. During Alexander Technique Week, practise this position for ten minutes every day and feel the difference. Lying in the semi-supine should be as much a daily habit as cleaning your teeth is and it’s every bit as preventative in terms of your health.

click here for instructions on how to set up this constructive rest and/or email or call me to book a first lesson/consultation using the contact buttons at the top of the page

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Hypermobility and the Alexander Technique -July 2019

gymnast-1958324_1920What is hypermobility? It’s when a joint can move beyond the ‘normal’ range of movement (ROM). When we were children, we may have known or been someone who was ‘double jointed’. Someone that could perform great ‘party pieces’, for example, demonstrate weird shaped elbows that seemed to bend the wrong way, be able to get their feet behind their head or push their thumbs down to touch the inside of their wrist. My husband is hypermobile, and until recently his party piece was dropping into the box splits!

Hypermobility can be present in a some joints and can be caused by specific training, for example, dancing and gymnastics, but these activities and disciplines, like yoga, also attract people with Hypermobility Syndrome (HMS) as they naturally more flexible. Hypermobility Syndrome is a specific condition affecting some or all joints and its often associated with other symptoms *. HMS is a spectrum disorder with most people only mildly affected and often asymptomatic, but a small proportion can be more severely affected. (There are also other conditions such as Ehlers-Danlos syndromes (EDS), a group of connective tissue disorders that can be inherited and are varied both in how they affect the body and in their genetic causes. They are generally characterised by joint hypermobility, skin hyperextensibility (skin that can be more stretchy than normal), and tissue fragility. There is substantial symptom overlap between the EDS subtypes and HMS disorders, which often makes diagnosis tricky.)

To stress, the majority of people with HMS are asymptomatic the condition can be an advantage for some. For example, many top athletes and performers are hypermobile including dance professionals as seen on Strictly Come Dancing, Wimbledon tennis campion Novak Djokovic, retired Olympic swimmer, Michael Phelps and even violinist and composer Paganini, who may have had an advantage from having HMS, as he was able to play wider fingerings than normal violinists.

As an Alexander Technique teacher with a background as a personal trainer I can help pupils in two ways:
1) Improve proprioception (awareness of the position and movement of the body) and body awareness.
2) Workshop exercises and activities so they learn to perform them in a safe and effective way.

Poor proprioception may make pupils more vulnerable to injury. It’s useful for anyone to have an accurate sense of where they are in space and how they are moving and using their joints, but its especially so if they have HMS. Understanding what a normal ROM is and generally using the joint within this range has a protective effect. In AT we help improve proprioception through a combination of body mapping and ‘hands-on’ teaching.

As people with HMS have more stretchy connective tissue (e.g. tendons and ligaments), the muscles around joints are having to perform more joint stabilisation, as a result muscles can become very tight. AT is often seen as helping release excess tension, pupils with HMS however, need to balance this release with a sense of ‘connection’ within their body. We only want release of excess tension, but keep appropriate tone to aid joint stability.

When pupils with HMS have active lifestyles, they tend to have stronger muscles and this is helpful when learning the Alexander Technique. There needs to be sufficient muscle strength present, or it can be difficult to sit or stand in a poised way for any length of time without ‘collapsing’ or slouching. Alexander Technique is a useful self-care tool for people with HMS, but strength work or specialist physiotherapy is also important, especially when people have had a sedentary lifestyle. Philip Bull, Consultant Rheumatologist, specialist with HMS and an advocate of Alexander Technique explains in an article “Working with a local Alexander Technique teacher I was able to help more people and found that patients with hypermobility found it particularly helpful; some even life changing. I then concluded that an individual programme combining specialist physiotherapy usually followed by Alexander Technique lessons often worked really well, allowing patients to self-manage their symptoms more easily. This approach became part of my standard practice.
Physiotherapists and the Alexander Technique teachers are quite different in their approach. I often say to my patients that if they think of themselves as a car, then the physiotherapist could be seen as the mechanic, i.e. the person who optimises the joints and builds up core stability. In contrast the Alexander Technique teacher can be likened to the driving instructor, teaching them how to drive their body with more skill.”

Muscle strengthening can be achieved in a number of ways, as Philip Bull states specialist physio maybe helpful, but once a level of stability is obtained pilates, resistance (weight) training, swimming or something similar maybe useful to maintain and develop strength. It’s important however, to (1) perform any exercise well and know you are not using joints outside of their normal ROM. (2) build up very slowly so as not to suddenly put undue strain through any joints.

The most important foundation for successful exercising with HMS is to have good body awareness which AT will teach. I encourage my AT pupils to workshop their pilates, gym or physio exercises with me using their new Alexander embodied awareness and principles, so they feel confident to perform them well when in exercises classes, the gym or at home. I also suggest pupils with HMS make their exercise instructor aware of their condition and preferably work with professionals that are experienced with HMS. I have recently found a pilates instructor Jeannie Di Bon on FaceBook that has EDS and has modified the way she works especially for herself and her hypermobile clients. In her book “Hypermobility without Tears” she writes about the importance of good proprioception, body awareness and breath, all of which are taught and improved by Alexander Technique. I recommend looking her up online as the way she teaches compliments the approach in AT. She also highlights other important differences in approach for people with HMS, such as stretching differently.

When I work with children with HMS, once the basic AT principles have been attended to and greater proprioception and body awareness achieved, I often work with them on simple but important tasks that make everyday life easier. For example; how to wear a school ruck sack well, how to hold a book and use a smart tablet, hand-writing (hypermobile finger joints can make writing hard work, causing excess tension), using scissors and workshop PE exercises and sports. After working on handwriting in a lesson with one of my young pupils with HMS they reported it had really helped at school. Before, writing had made their hand and wrist ache and writing was slow. It was proving tricky to keep up with note taking in class. After our session and some practice writing became easier, faster and their hand no longer ached. All, while sitting with a soft and tall body! – Gratifying feedback.

So if you are hypermobile, the Alexander Technique can prove a useful tool for self-care.

To read more go to www.atfriends.org/Hypermobility.htm where Julie Barber, Alexander Technique Teacher and specialist in working with HMS writes about her experience of getting an HMS diagnosis for her daughter and presents greater detail of the condition.

To find out more about lessons call or email me using the links at the top of the page.

Note: Alexander Technique Teachers are not doctors or therapist and do not engage in medical diagnosis or administer any disease specific remedy.

* other symptoms may include; autonomic dysfunction, proprioceptive impairment, intestinal dysfunction, anxiety and chronic pain.

Mastering the Art of Working out (or how to avoid injuries with mindful exercising) -June 2019 Blog

crossfit-534615_1920

I was always mindful of using my best technique while training and exercising, even before I became a personal trainer or Alexander Technique Teacher.  I am, however, competitive by nature, with myself and others and often pushed myself to the limit resulting in injury. I was in my early to mid twenty’s when I was training at my hardest, youth was on my side and the idea of sustainable training didn’t seem an issue at that point. I always seemed to bounce back.

When I qualified as a personal trainer and taught exercise classes and 1-2-1 training sessions I was even more of a stickler for ‘good form’ or technique. Sometimes with weight training in particular, I saw people ‘cheating’ while performing exercises. ‘Cheating’ by performing for example, simple bicep curls (an exercise for the front upper arm muscles), with too heavy a weight for their present capability.  This meant they swung the weight up to create speed and momentum, using and arching their lower backs, rather than only using their bicep, thus risking injury. They also failed to perform the exercise with a full range of movement which meant they wouldn’t benefit fully for the exercise. I tried to be a good example to clients, promoted good technique and explained the risks of poor technique. Unfortunately however, I still sustained injury for two main reasons;

  1. My biggest habit – and competitive nature, I always pushed myself and didn’t listen to my body.
  2. I misunderstood exactly what ‘good body use’ or good poise/posture were. 

I had a classic ‘military style’ posture at the time, not slouchy, therefore good so I thought? Well no, I was wrong, It created undue stress and tension especially in my lower back and between my shoulder blades. As a result these were areas I regularly injured. Also, having spent my teens competing at discus and shot-put at school, with much enthusiasm but without great technique, I would regularly injure my ‘throwing’ shoulder. (My lack of technique meant I was using my arm from my shoulder and not supporting it with the rest of my body).

It wasn’t until I started having Alexander Technique lessons that I realised where I was habitually holding excess tension due to my faulty sense of ‘good posture’. I gradually understood what I was doing that made me prone to repeatedly injuring the same muscles and joints.

Now, through the skills learnt with Alexander Technique, when I do exercises, go for a walk or even sit at my laptop to write this, I have a more accurate sense of how I am using my body and tools and techniques to help me move well. This improved body use is built on a foundation of mindful awareness of my body. I am able to bring my attention into my body, while still being aware of my surroundings. I wish AT had been part of my physical education, I am sure it would have prevented many of my injuries.

Another thing that I feel contributes to injury within the gym environment, is that we are NOT encouraged to train mindfully. We are often distracted by watching television screens and work out more from a sense of duty rather than enjoyment. We rush around mindlessly, going through the process without much thought. When new to a gym, an instructor should demonstrate the exercises and machines to us, but it can be tricky to accurately replicate something demonstrated in this way. Many gyms, however, are not supervised by instructors and we are left to our own devises. These factors may make gyms more of a health hazzard than an aid to our health and wellbeing. There are also more controversial exercises, that are not appropriate for some people and getting advice is helpful. However, with all exercises it’s more about how we perform them and thinking mindfully about our bodies capability as we train. Training in a conscious and intelligent way, makes the most of the exercises we do and allows fitness to become something with long term benefits. 

My Top Tips for Exercising

  • Be mindful of how you are using your body, especially with relation to your head, neck and back. If we are over tensing and compressing our spines it can lead to all sorts of problems. Alexander technique teaches us how to move our spines, joints and limbs in a well co-ordinated and free way. It improves our proprioception (awareness of the position and movement of the body)  and kinaesthetic awareness  (The ability to be aware of one’s own body parts (e.g., muscles, tendons, joints), posture, shifting of weight and movement of the body through space).  For example, if you have ever seen a kids karate class, adult BodyPump class or similar, you may have noticed the different ways people ‘interpret’ the instructors demonstration, you can see how inaccurate our body awareness can be. N.B. If you are hypermobile, or have Hypermobility Syndrome, then your proprioception is sometimes less accurate. It’s best to improve this first before going to the gym, as your chances of injury are higher with poor proprioception. I shall write more about this next month, but feel free to contact me for more information. 
  • Understand which muscles and joints the exercise is working and moving. We need to have an accurate body-map, a practical understanding of our own basic anatomy to train well without injury, Alexander Technique will teach you this. 
  • Listen to your body, understand where you are now, from week to week things can change, respond to what your body is telling you.
  • Think about your breath. If you are holding your breath or modifying it too much you maybe creating problems. Alexander Technique helps!

To change unhelpful training habits, try some Alexander Technique lessons, learn how to master the art of working out and move well throughout the rest of your life. For more information or to book a lesson please use the contact details on top of the page.

The Curse of the ‘Tension Triangle’ and How the Alexander Technique can help – May Blog 2019.

neck-3739667_1920Do you carry the weight of the world on your shoulders? Are you shouldering heavy responsibilities? Are your shoulders tense and tight and wound up towards your ears? I am sure we all recognise these sensations and feelings! I know I have felt either dragged down or wound up at various times, and our shoulders are only part of the story. We might be stuck in the ‘tension triangle’ – a band of tension that falls within the top part or our bodies, involving the head, neck, shoulders, jaw and facial muscles, including the brow.

The muscles of the shoulders, neck, jaw and brow often react dramatically to psychological pressure (emotions), juggling our busy lives without a sense of embodied awareness can lead not just to mental distress but also physical pain. But it’s not just emotional pressures that produce the tension triangle. Sitting at our desks, using laptops, tables and phones for long periods without moving and without embodied awareness can also have the same effect. We often wedge ourselves into our favourite positions and get lost in what we are doing for ages, without any thought of our bodies. Unconsciously waiting for pain as the first piece of feedback that maybe this is not the best way of being while we are doing what we are doing.

The Alexander Technique is a useful tool for unlocking the tension triangle. It gives us the ability to choose more skillful ways to respond to and approach different situations and offers techniques to dissipate the excess tension that may build up. When I started Alexander Technique lessons about 20 years ago I found the learning process liberating. I realised things could be different, easier and there was a way out of my habitual reactions and patterns of body use. There was the possibility of change, and because AT is a psychophysical approach we have a two pronged strategy using both mind/thoughts and our bodies to help be at ease, while being more poised and responsive (i.e. less reactive and tense).

So from both my experience as a pupil and knowledge as an Alexander teacher here are my 5 steps to liberate ourselves from the tension triangle.

1. Be Curious and Notice – both our bodies, what we are doing with them and our thoughts, especially our self-talk. Is the self-talk critical and harsh? Are we focused or finishing a task to such an extent that all body awareness has disappeared? What are our helpful and unhelpful habits of thought and body use?

2. Self-acceptance and self-compassion – its useful to realise that our unhelpful habits may have once been helpful, but are just no longer serving us well. As we bring more conscious awareness to our thoughts and body-use and learn AT skills, we have the choice to change habits for the better. But we mustn’t underestimate the power of habits, by being kind and self-accepting we allow for a gentle noticing of unhelpful habits, rather than producing more tension through ‘telling ourselves off’ every time we notice an unhelpful habit.

3. Pause to choose and breathe – Pause to notice and inhibit our habitual reaction which allows choice in response. Pause to breathe, if in doubt breathe out! – I find a useful mantra, breathing out activates the calming part of out nervous system and helps us let go of tension. Doing a breathing exercise that involves breathing out calmly for longer than you breathe in is very helpful. In the Alexander Technique we have the ‘Whispered Ah’ procedure. But the 7-11 breathing technique is helpful too. Its important to remember that to allow breathing to calm and free up our bodies we need to let go of our tummies and allow them to move with the breath, notice the movement of the ribs and allow the shoulder/ collar bone movement to be secondary (i.e. they will move with the breath, but less so than the tummy and ribs). Thinking about our bodies being soft and tall can be helpful.

4. Direct or think about our bodies differently. In AT we learn to think about our bodies differently so they can be freer and more poised. Within the tension triangle we have specific parts of out bodies we can notice and think about. First think of you head balancing lightly and freely on the top of your spine. In lessons we help body map what this means with the hands-on help of a teacher, so that our embodied understanding of ourselves is more accurate. Secondly, think of the circular muscles round your eyes and mouth releasing and your jaw being easy. To help this allow a small space between the upper and lower molars at the back of your jaw. Third, think about your shoulders flowing away from each other and gentle rest on top of your rib cage. However, be careful not to pull or push your shoulders around. As a colleague, Angela Bradshaw writes so helpfully in her book ‘Be In Balance’, Don’t pull them up, down, forward or back, leave them alone. Releasing tension is not a ‘doing’, we are not trying to create a particular shape, we are allowing the body to free up and release. Last, think about your body being soft and tall (easy and poised), this is helpful whether you are slumped with the weight of the world on your shoulders or wound up tight with your shoulders up around your ears.

5. Get on with your day knowing that you can check in with your body and thoughts again at intervals to offer the previous steps again. The goal is not to try to hold on to this new found ease and poise, that way lies tension and failure. What we are aiming for, is to know we can just keep coming back to our body and refresh our thoughts/ directions. Another helpful short cut I offer is to ask yourself the questions ‘Am I seeing? Am I breathing? Am I balancing? (Details of how this can be useful are explained and discussed in lessons). As we practice this technique regularly it becomes more ‘natural’ and just part of a new helpful habit that melts away the tension triangle and sometimes avoids it all together.

If you would like to find out more or book a lesson please use the contact details at the right of the page.

Reading Aloud with Confidence and the Alexander Technique – April 2019

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Last month I had the pleasure of taking a workshop for the wonderful charity ‘First Story’. Their mission is to change lives through writing. As it says on their website they ‘believe that writing can transform lives, and that there is dignity and power in every young person’s story. First Story brings talented, professional writers into secondary schools serving low-income communities to work with teachers and students to foster creativity and communication skills. By helping students find their voices through intensive, fun programmes, First Story raises aspirations and gives students the skills and confidence to achieve them’.

The author Stephanie Cross, who was running one of the courses, had been taking Alexander Technique lessons and realised its potential to help her students overcome their ‘performance anxiety’ and feel more confident reading their work aloud. The finale of the ‘First Story’ sessions is the students’ book launch. Their work is published as an anthology, (they even design the book cover) what an incredible opportunity. At the launch the students get the chance to read their pieces to an invited audience before becoming like famous authors at a literary festival and signing their books for those that attend.

My session was organised to help students prepare for this event and equip them with some practical tools to help them feel calm and collected, and help them enjoy the process. This felt like a project close to my heart. I am dyslexic and at their age it was my worse nightmare to be asked to read aloud in class. I was better in an assembly or reading something I could pre-prepare as I had my own techniques to make this slightly easier. I would mark in extra places to breathe if needed and practice reading the piece aloud so much, that on the day I was really performing the piece from memory rather than reading it. During my Alexander Technique Teacher training I was able to improve my reading of previously un-seen pieces and feel more confident with this process. This was in part due to sessions and discussions we had on ways of seeing and reading. As a result, for the first time in my life at the age of 38, I realised how differently other people read and what their techniques were, I had no idea! We also spent time as a group reading aloud from F M Alexander’s books, taking turns reading while an Alexander teacher worked with us and gave hands-on guidance. This was a friendly, non-judgemental atmosphere and gave me the room to practice reading aloud, which I find I can now enjoy, Alexander Technique is fantastic.

I wanted to create this same friendly, non-judgemental safe place to explore reading aloud with these students. The session I ran started by giving the pupils an experiential understanding of how all our bodies tend to habitually react under pressure. This is similar to the flight, fright, freeze response or ‘startle’ reflex. We know that if we are stressed the emotional brain (the amygdala) takes over and stops our thinking brain (prefrontal cortex) from working well and generally tenses up our bodies. But if we can notice some of the stresses physical effects (through Alexander embodied awareness tools) we can allow the tension to dissipate, breathe more easily, see the room around us, and our thinking brains can kick back in due to the calming of the nervous system. We then perform better and have greater peace of mind. To explore all this we played a great AT game called ‘drop the sox’ which Judith Kleinman, my teacher and mentor taught me. It is a great way of seeing how we respond to a stimulus, in this case the thought of having to read aloud to an audience is represented by catching a bean bag being dropped. The students enjoyed the game and started to notice what they were thinking and how their bodies were reacting. They fed-back these observations to the rest of the group very articulately. They initially noticed critical/worried thinking, their shoulders scrunching, elbows tightening, heads poking forward, hearts beating faster and sweaty palms. I prompted them to notice other things like their breathing and their tummies. The game then gradually lets them play with the AT concepts of pausing (inhibiting) and thinking (directing their bodies) before and while in activity. I gradually added different things for them to think about and they noticed how they responded. The students also noticed that as they thought different AT thoughts, they used their bodies with more ease and poise and things becomes easier. Even, not always catching the bean bag in the game was ok, it felt less stressful – it was ok to make mistakes!

This experiential learning then helped inform the reading aloud process of those that volunteered to read their pieces aloud to the rest of the group. I gave further guidance with some more questions and Alexander thinking during this time. The session was an experimental and open approach to reading aloud. I was very impressed with the kind and useful way they gave each other feedback. The group was respectful of each other and the whole process felt supportive, friendly and playful. Listening to them read their creative writing compositions was a joy too, it was inspiring to see what they had produced with Stephanie’s guidance.

After an hour we had a break from reading aloud and I guided them through a little movement activity they could use to help release tension before performing. Better still we then had a short biscuit-break, kindly supplied by Stephanie before the last few volunteers read in the same way, with self-observation and accepting useful feedback and suggestions as to how reading aloud might be easier.

I finished by recapping a few key points and giving out handouts with some useful questions and AT tips to help them on the day. I also reminded the students that all these skills and tools are transferable. After all any situation where we feel slightly outside of our comfort zone is just an everyday sort of ‘performance anxiety’. Some of these students had exams in the summer term, interviews to think about and other occasions where the skills they had explored and learnt in this session will come in useful. I felt the Alexander Technique was able to give these pupils skills I would have found useful at their age and made my experience of reading aloud much more comfortable. My relationship with reading aloud has been transformed through the Alexander Technique, I read aloud to the children of Educare Small School every time I teach AT there and now have the skills to read with expression and do ‘voices’. I don’t even mind when I make mistakes (and I realise nor does anyone else!). I love it, storytelling is wonderful and unexpected gift form the Alexander Technique. I wish Stephanie’s students an enjoyable book launch in the summer.

If you have any questions about the Alexander Technique or my work in schools please feel free to contact me using the details at the top of the page.