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.

 

Response to NYT article “Alternatives to Drugs for Treating Pain”, by Jane Brody

Body Project Blog ~
Where Thought is the Active Ingredient

Regarding the Sept 11, 2017 NYT Well article: Alternatives to Drugs for Treating Pain

I applaud Jane Brody for presenting a great list of non invasive treatments for back pain – missing from this list is the Alexander Technique, one of the few methods that has been subjected to a large  (n = 579) randomized controlled trial. Alexander Technique was effective for mitigating low back pain, both after treatment and at a 1-year follow up, as compared to both massage therapy and a no treatment educational control condition, See: Randomised controlled trial of Alexander technique lessons, exercise, and massage (ATEAM) for chronic and recurrent back pain for details. More recently Alexander Technique has been shown to lower neck pain, and mitigate pain in knee osteoarthritis possibly due to improved gait mechanics, although admittedly the latter study has a small sample size, limiting the reliability of results.

Alexander Technique, in my opinion, is a superior intervention because it teaches mindful awareness AND a way of moving that is arguably far more efficient, that will prevent and heal the wear and tear on your body from poor movement habits, and encourage you to move more, because the act of moving has suddenly become pleasurable. To the extent that pain and muscle tension is caused by moving in an inefficient manner, Alexander Technique provides a solution. To the extent that pain and muscle tension results from mental stress, Alexander Technique also provides a solution.

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New study shows that reducing neck tension improves coordination

about-elyse

Body Project blog ~ Where thought is the active ingredient, by Elyse Shafarman

An elegant new study by Professor Ian Loram’s group in the UK demonstrates that stopping neck tension improves coordination of the whole body.

Participants used ultrasound biofeedback to monitor activity of neck muscles while playing violin – as well as other less complex tasks. Results showed that when participants reduced activation in the neck they spontaneously changed the movement of their whole body in ways that both increased efficiency and balance. These results support the main thesis of the Alexander Technique: Our necks exert a global controlling influence (for good or ill) on the quality of our movement. Results also showed that conscious monitoring of movement did not impair performance, a finding that conflicts with previous research, but supports F.M. Alexander’s thesis that conscious control of movement is desirable. Read the full study here: Proactive selective inhibition targeted at the neck muscles: this proximal constraint facilitates learning and regulates global control, Loram et al. 2016

Based on these results, try to reduce tension in your neck muscles and see if that improves your movement quality.

But how do you stop tension in the neck muscles without biofeedback?

The short answer is to send a message from your brain to your muscles to let go. I like to imagine that I have a dial labeled “Neck” in my brain that I can turn from high to low. The key is to use your imagination, or really your mind. This finely honed connection between thought and body reaction is something that students learn in Alexander lessons.

The longer answer is to:
(1) Stop whatever it is that you are doing (or thinking) that is causing the tension. Observe how the tension is related to a stimulus. Your tension is caused by the way you react – it is not who you are.
(2) Engage in the activity or thought that causes tension. Observe how you are tensing. A mirror or video camera would be useful. External feedback is necessary because our feelings our often not accurate.
(3) Once you know which parts of yourself might be overworking, you can more easily instruct those parts to calm down.

Calling your local Alexander Teacher might be a the fastest way of figuring this out in the absence of access to ultrasound biofeedback.

Lighten up! Thinking might reduce your risk of falls

 

Look up, think up, lighten up!

Look up, think up, lighten up!

Think, “Allow my head to float up at the top of my spine. Allow my bones to send me up.” What happens to you? Do you feel a little taller and lighter? As it turns out, this simple wish, the first in the Alexander Technique lexicon, was powerful enough to improve balance and stability in elder adults in ways that are consistent with fall prevention. How safe do you feel in the shower? Falling is the top cause of accidental death in adults older than 60.

In a preliminary study (October, 2015), led by Dr. Rajal G. Cohen at the Mind in Movement Laboratory, University of Idaho, 20 adults between ages 60 and 80 had their stature and balance measured while employing three different mental strategies for changing posture.

(1) In the Relaxed condition, participants were asked to imagine that they were tired and lazy, and to stand as if no one could see them.

(2) In the Effort condition, participants were asked to use muscular effort to pull themselves up to their greatest height.

(3). In the Lighten up condition, participants were asked to imagine their head floating up off the top of the spine and their bones supporting them in an upwards direction.

Participants performed two movements, a) 30 seconds of rhythmic weight shifting from side-to-side at the rate of 72 beats per minute, and b) raising one foot rapidly. Three measurements were taken: 1) neck length, measured as the distance between the first and 7th cervical vertebrae, 2) movement of the center of mass (forward/backwards and side to side), and 3) both height and rhythm of movement.

Step aside from your screen for a second and try shifting your weight quickly from side to side for 30 seconds. Try each movement strategy. Which is easiest for you? Can you keep a steady rhythm? Which approach makes you feel most coordinated and balanced? Test a friend, and maybe get a baseline (i.e. no strategy) measurement first. Then vary the order of conditions. What are your findings?

Cohen et al. found that neck length was significantly longer in the Lighten up condition than the relaxed condition. This finding suggests that directed thinking with no muscular effort can enhance upright stance and reduce compression of cervical vertebrae. Both the Effort condition and the Relaxed condition caused the center of mass to sway significantly more during movement. This suggests that the Effort and Relax conditions worsened balance and coordination, whereas the Lighten up condition improved postural control and stability. Finally, the self report feedback from participants confirmed that the Lighten up instructions were easier to use, and led to movement that felt more balanced and secure. The latter finding is important, because fear of falling can often lead elders to restrict activity. Over time, this leads to further weakness and worsening of motor control. Could a sense of ease and balance in movement lead elders to move more? How do these findings compare to your self experiment?

It’s important to note that this was a preliminary study, with a small sample size, so results must be taken with a grain of salt. Further research is needed to measure the impact of Lighten up instruction on fall risk.

The beauty of the Lighten up intervention is that it’s just a thought. Our thinking is completely portable, requires no money and very little time. Mindfulness is sweeping the nation as a positive strategy for health and well-being. This is one of the first studies that shows that a mindfulness approach based on the Alexander Technique might improve balance and coordination in ways that could significantly decrease risk of accidental falls.

For further information, or to get a copy of the poster session, visit The Mind in Movement Laboratory
Rajal G. Cohen, Ph.D. @ rcohen@uidaho.edu

Body Project Blog: Where Thought is the Active Ingredient!