Spotted—Pedestrian employing Alexander Technique while carrying her daughter

I don’t ordinarily talk to strangers. Maybe Dan Hoyle’s play, “Each and Every Thing” got under my skin. The play introduces the concept of “open time.” That is, no smart phone fourth wall. No screens. Face-to-face conversation with people on the street becomes possible.

I saw a tall woman on a steep hill with her small daughter perched on her shoulders. The woman was leaning down to remove a Frisbee from her dog’s mouth. These are common activities that are to perform gracefully. The hill was slanted steeply. The woman and her daughter’s backs formed elegant parallel lines. As she bent to reach her dog, the women’s knees flowed away from her hip joints neatly countering the angle of her torso. The beagle’s head flowed up to her hand to complete the euclidean ideal. There were no broken lines. No crouched spines. All heads were up. All eyes were bright and observant.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think people should have good posture. But the dancer in me is attracted to line and fluid motion. And I miss the time when people’s faces and eyes were regularly up and out. The “look” of posture is just a side effect of alert engagement and knowing how to move with ease.

So I piped up, “I couldn’t help noticing your amazing form.”
“It’s not easy negotiating daughter and dog,” she said. And with that, we struck up a conversation. She had just returned from an afternoon with her friend and Alexander Technique teacher Anne Bluethenthal.

Thumbs up for the Alexander Technique conspiracy of surprising grace in everyday activities.

Body Project Blog: Where Thought is the Active Ingredient.

What is the Alexander Technique?

Alexander Technique is a scientifically verified and cost effective method for solving back pain (BMJ 2008;337:a884).

Inverted pendulum

We lean back as a culture. To compensate, we stick our necks out and push our hips forward. The stance is both physical and metaphorical. This posture reads as cool and relaxed, but the cost is low back pain (including sciatica), and irksome neck and shoulder tension.

I wrote these exercises down for a student who leans back. I thought you might also find them useful. They are inspired by Feldenkrais (who was also was inspired by Alexander).

These experiments will help you feel what your habitual movement patterns are. They will also help you move with better coordination and balance. You can do the whole series, or incorporate a little bit into your gym routine, or other daily activities.

1. Stand on both feet and sway side to side. Pay attention to the shifting contact across the feet, then the movements in the hips, and then the chest. Notice which parts of your body move easily, and which parts take effort. Maybe the hips are moving like a hula dancer. That’s OK for loosening up and breathing, but to enhance coordination and balance, you want to move from the top of the head. To do this, bring attention to the top of your head. Imagine moving your whole body from your crown, swaying at the ankle joints, like an inverted pendulum.

2. Try the same exercise forward and backwards.

3. Circle in both directions.

4. Do the same exercise but stand on one leg, using the other one as a “kickstand” to help keep balance.

5. Then practice walking leading the movement from the top of the head. To aid this sensation, you can pull a little bit on the hair on top of your head. The crown should project upwards as though you had eyes on the top of your head and were looking at the ceiling. Notice that if you typically hold your chin up, projecting the top of your head upwards might feel like you are looking down.

You can try the same sequence getting out of a chair.

1. Rock forward and back from the hip joints. Notice where you feel some effort. Like a lever, the farther away from the base that you generate movement, the easier the movement will feel. You might find that it feels hard to move the torso forward and backwards near the hip joint, but feels effortless if you move from the top of the head.

2. Rock side to side.

3. Circle in both directions

4. Try standing up leading from the top of the head. You will know you are on the right track if you can stand without pushing hard with your legs. It might feel effortless.

Here’s a caveat: never hold your body into a position (even one that seems like a good idea). Holding just causes more discomfort. Even the helpful idea of leading from the crown of the head should not be “done.”  It’s just a thought. It’s just a wish — a whisper of an intention to go somewhere in space.

In general, as you go about your life activities, you will move more efficiently if the top of the head is projecting upwards. This should correct the tendency to lean back and push the hips forward when walking and standing. If the head is balanced, the torso and legs will be inclined to hang like a plumb line. Your might feel like one big inverted pendulum.

Here a final note: I promised myself I would never write this sort of “how to” post. The Alexander Technique is not a series of exercises. But after doing the work to write this out for a student, I thought I might as well post it in my blog. Credit to FM Alexander for the theory and Moshe Feldenkrais for the practice.

Postscript: Six months after writing this, I came across a 2002, NY times article, Improving the Way Humans Walk the Walk that supports the inverted pendulum metaphor.


Body Project Blog: Where Thought is the Active Ingredient.


Jaw & Hip Connection

For years I’ve been telling students that tension in the jaw is connected to tension in the pelvis and hip joints. But where did this idea come from?

I always assumed Moshe Feldenkrais made the original observation, but I’ve never been able to find a reference. And, when I looked several years ago, all I came up with was a reference to natural childbirth expert Ina May Gaskin’s, “Sphincter law,” which states that, “If the mouth, jaw and throat are relaxed, then so is your bottom.” This might have more to do with symptoms of a generalized relaxation response, then literal “sphincters.”

Nevertheless, good to know.

A link between the jaw and pelvis makes sense if we view hypothalamic drive states as the underlying model for unconscious tension habits. That is, the 5 F’s – Fight, Flight, Fright, Freeze and Reproduction – with all their attendant muscular, neural, hormonal and mental activation. Tension (or relaxation) is rarely regional (although we can also blame furniture, culture and our iPhones).

A 2009 study conducted in Germany showed that myofascial release of the TMJ joint significantly increased range of motion in the hip joints. This was true for participants both with and without chronic pain. Additionally, voluntarily clenching the jaw reduced hip joint mobility for all subjects. Caveat: these findings might only describe a generalized relaxation response, not a direct link between the jaw and the hips. Perhaps if the researchers had asked the participants to clench their fists they would have discovered the same decrease in hip mobility.

Have you ever tried to open a jar without tightening your jaw or fists? Try it. How about your hips? This suggests a little home Alexander Technique project.

From an Alexander Technique standpoint, a free neck, a free jaw, and free hips all go together. It’s hard to release the jaw in isolation.

If you have trouble with jaw tension, try relaxing your feet, and then your legs. See if your breath doesn’t then drop into your pelvis, which then relaxes your hips.

How’s your jaw doing now?