quick reflection on the concept of “holism”

Body Project Blog ~ Where thought is the active ingredient.

Holism is a fundamental construct of the Alexander Technique, but the word is cheapened by new age nostrums and advertising. Who among us does not feel Whole, and maybe even Holy after a trip to Whole Foods to buy ourselves the most Earthy, *Truthy,* Healthy (not to mention Pricey) items? Whole is a term that has lost it’s integrity.

Lewis Thomas writes, “The word “holistic” was invented in the 1920’s by the South African philosopher and politician Jan Smuts*, to provide shorthand for the almost self-evident truth that any living organism, and perhaps any collection of organisms, is something more than the sum of its’ working parts.**’ Thomas goes on to say, “The word is becoming trendy, a buzzword, almost lost to science. What is called holistic thought these days strikes me as more like the transition from a mind like a steel trap to a mind like steel wool.”* And yet, given all that, the mind, the body, the complete self is inherently “whole” and deserves a scientific framing. It is possible to study systems.

F.M. Alexander was an astute observer of the human animal, and one of the first Westerners to describe the inseparable nature of mind and movement. Our emotional winds, our finally held beliefs, our predictions based on past learning are all tied to physical expression and visa versa. You might aim to free your shoulder or free your mind, and suddenly experience how a singular action effects the network of being. We are whole in the sense of the indivisibility of the self.

*It’s unfortunate but true that Smuts’ view on race was not nearly so advanced. He subscribed to the deplorable views of his time.
**The Fragile Self, Lewis Thomas, pp 72-73.

 

Book Review – Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon’s Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart by James Doty

Body Project Blog ~ Where Thought is the Active Ingredient, by Elyse Shafarman

Just finished reading “Into the Magic Shop – A Neurosurgeon’s Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart” by James Doty, founder of Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research. The book is a beautiful parable about overcoming adversity and the power of ancient meditation techniques to relax the body, tame the mind, open the heart and clarify intent. As cutting edge research is showing, these meditation practices enhance psychological and physical health (I’ll skip the science here, but it’s fascinating), and may give you the energy and inspiration to work for a better world.

Jame’s Doty’s “magic” is of course based in the Buddhist Tradition of Loving Kindness (Metta). I have a few blog posts (below) about the myriad ways that Metta is helpful when learning the Alexander Technique.

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Move Your DNA — Book Review

As a polemic, Katy Bowman’s Move Your DNA rates 5 stars. As a work of popular science and an exercise manual, I have to drop this rating to 2 stars.

As an Alexander Technique Teacher, I can’t help but cheer at Katy’s thesis that the mechanical forces created from our daily hours of sitting, wearing shoes and staring at screens is shaping our bodies. Even an admirable daily exercise habit cannot combat the other 23 hours of our day.  It’s F.M. Alexander’s thesis—”Use affects function,”— reformatted for a modern audience with a scientific, ‘paleo’ twist. After reading Bowman’s book, you may find yourself squatting to go the potty, running barefoot and sleeping on the floor— or at least throwing away your pillows.

She opens with the dramatic example of “Floppy fin syndrome.” The mechanical forces created when a killer whale swims in the ocean at variable depths, speeds, and direction loads the fin tissues in ways that stimulate the fin to stiffen and stay upright. Whales in captivity don’t get these natural mechanical loads and the top fin flops. Every modern convenience from heat, to cars, to your fluffy mattress, protects the body from the mechanical loads necessary for health. Our bodies are the whale’s floppy fin.

Bowman does not shy away from strong analogies like “casting.”  The adaptations our bodies make when we have to wear a cast, such as muscle wasting, stiffening and bone loss occur in response to our environmental “casts” of smooth sidewalks, chairs, and even indoor time. From our eyes to our feet, our tissues conform to the limitations of our daily positions.

Bowman has a firm handle on the reality that our bodies function as a whole and the added benefit of a scientist’s perspective on the effects of force on tissue development.  I’m happy that she points out that the invocation to tighten your tummy to protect your lower-back is hopelessly outdated. The endless regimen of crunches (that occur even in some of my favorite yoga classes) may have limited value and may even damage the spine.

The book is less wonderful as an exercise manual. It’s poorly organized and hard to search. This problem may be worse in the Kindle version, where the index lacks hyperlinks and location references. The illustrative photographs are often pages away from the text instructions. If it was hard for me as a movement specialist to decipher all of her exercises, I’m imagining it would be quite frustrating for a layperson.

Although the book is not intended as a technical study in bio-mechanical sciences, I would have appreciated a little bit more evidence. For example, she devotes a large section to her thesis that Kegel exercises (isolated contractions of the pelvic floor muscles) may cause more harm then good. I completely agree that Kegels do not address the overall use patterns of the pelvis and torso, and ideally, it’s best to let those muscles function automatically. However she does not present evidence that her approach works better. Although something seems intuitively true, it may not be.

There’s no way that such a small book can be comprehensive. Bowman’s attempt is not to get us to adopt a fully paleo lifestyle, but to rethink our current one. By bettering our daily movement habits, we have a better quality of life.

Body Project Blog: Where Thought is the Active Ingredient.

F.M. Alexander publishes from beyond the grave? A prank or plagiarism or some of both?

F.M. Alexander (1869 – 1955) apparently has the power to publish posthumously. I believe the technique is transformational on every level — after all, I’ve devoted the last 27 years of my life to studying and teaching the Alexander Technique. There’s even a gold standard randomized controlled trial with a very large sample size (N = 579) showing that the technique is a low-cost, effective means of solving back pain (see: http://www.bmj.com/content/337/bmj.a884 ), but I’ve never heard of any paranormal effects. Will the real author please step up?

Practice tip: 3-D Breathing for Back Pain

A student emailed me this morning to say, “I just wanted to let you know that the three-dimensional breathing technique you taught me saved my back yesterday.”

3-D breathing, adapted from Betsy Polatin’s wonderful new book, The Actors Secret, helps you experience optimal movement of the ribs and torso during breath.

Try 3-D breathing:

1. Front to back dimension: Place a hand on your belly and a hand on your low back. You will naturally feel your belly expand and deflate as you breathe. You can also feel more subtle movement in your low back. Visualize more of the breath movement happening in your back. This will help widen and relax the back muscles. Do you feel more movement in your back after visualizing?

Next, bring a hand on your sternum and a hand on your back near your shoulder blades. If your shoulders are too tight to easily reach your back, you can place a hand on a friend’s back to feel their breath movement. Yours will be similar.  Remove your hands and sense your own breath movement. Did you know that most of your lung tissue is in the back of your body?

2. Side to side dimension: Place your hands as comfortably as you can on your side ribs. Feel the horizontal expansion of your ribs as you inhale. Feel the deflation of your ribs as you exhale. Stay for a few breaths. Remove your hands and sense your rib motion.

3. Bottom to top dimension: Place a hand above your collar bone on your uppermost rib (yes, there’s a rib above your collar bone!). Place a hand below your sit bone or at your perineum. Feel the rise of the upper ribs, and the fall of your pelvic floor as you inhale. As you exhale, you may feel the pelvic floor rise and the spine lengthen upwards. If you can’t sense anything at first, take a few big breaths as if you were at the doctor’s office. Once you get the feeling, breathe normally. Then remove your hands and sense the movement.

Which dimensions of breathing are familiar to you? Which do you use rarely?

Does the act of noticing your breathing automatically improve the quality? Is your breath smoother, deeper, or easier in any way?

In your day-to-day life, start by sensing one breath dimension at a time. Can you sense your breath while talking on the phone, eating, or texting?

 

Body Project Blog: Where Thought is the Active Ingredient.

Mindless Eating

I will comment, that as much as I enjoy Mindful eating, I’m also a big fan of Brian Wansink’s Mindless Eating….

Wansink does not give eating advice based on ideals of mindful-awareness, health or even nutrition. Wansink researches actual eating behavior.

The outcome of Wansink’s research is a series of small, ingenious environmental adjustments you can make to control your eating behavior — without thinking about it…i.e. mindlessly.

For example:

If you want to eat less, serve the food on a plate in a contrasting color. A cup of white fettuccine on a white plate will look like less food than the same cup on a contrasting red plate due to an optical illusion (Delboeuf illusion).

How much of a difference does this illusion make? People with white plates served themselves 22% more pasta than people with contrasting red plates.

See: http://foodpsychology.cornell.edu/content/plate-size-and-color-suggestibility-delboeuf-illusion-bias-serving-and-eating-behavior

 

More Alexander Technique Book Recommendations

1. For a modern take on the Alexander Technique, try: How You Stand, How You Move, How You Live: Learning the Alexander Technique to Explore Your Mind-Body Connection and Achieve Self-Mastery Paperback.  Vineyard speculates on the neuroscience behind the Alexander Technique and includes a series of case studies and short vignettes about her own experiences learning the technique.

2. You could go back to the source and read: The Use of the Self   With editing help from John Dewey, this is widely regarded as F.M. Alexander’s most readable book.

Outside the Alexander Technique cannon, you might like:

Somatics: Reawakening The Mind’s Control Of Movement, Flexibility, And Health. Hanna outlines the research linking stress and poor posture and describes how somatic awareness can restore vitality and agility at any age.

Peter Levine’s Waking the Tiger is the classic on trauma in the body.

Robert Sapolsky’s Why Zebra’s Don’t Get Ulcers is the most entertaining and best-researched book on Stress and Health.

Athough I’ve offered Amazon links so that you can read about the books, many of these books will be available through your library, and any of them through Link+

More book recommendations elsewhere on my blog:

What to read if you are new to the Alexander Technique

Anatomy books

 

Alexander Technique Book Recommendations for New Students

  1. Back Trouble: A New Approach to Prevention and Recovery, by Deborah Caplan
  2. The Alexander Technique: A Skill for Life, by Pedro Alcantara
  3. Body Learning, by Michael Gelb
  4. How You Stand, How You Move, How You Live: Learning the Alexander Technique to Explore Your Mind-Body Connection and Achieve Self-Mastery by Missy Vineyard
  5. The Use of the Self, by F.M. Alexander

 

 

Anatomy Book Recommendations

  1. Albinus on Anatomy This is my favorite book to use for teaching. The illustrations are beautiful.
  2. The Anatomy of Movement, by Blandine Calais-Germain. It is frequently sold with The Anatomy of Movement: Exercises book by the same author. This is a great resource for both gazing at bones, and learning about the functional anatomy of movement.
  3. If you’re looking for more hands-on learning, try the Anatomy Coloring Book, by Wynn Kapit & Lawrence M. Elson. I think this is how I learned my anatomy. Also, research shows that coloring help you relax and focus!
  4. How to Learn the Alexander Technique, a Manual for Students, by Barbara Conable is an excellent resource for dispelling myths about your body (for example, your ankle joints aren’t big round circles), and helping improve your movement patterns through educations about actual joint anatomy. The pictures aren’t too great though, so I would recommend getting this with another anatomy book.
  5. If you want to go deeper and learn about fascial lines, nothing beats Thomas Myers’ Anatomy Trains.