Hypermobility and the Alexander Technique

Myself being hypermobile, I cannot think of not doing an action right now – such as for example lifting the shopping in the supermarket or lifting a bag – without applying the Alexander Technique consciously because the dangers that can happen if I don’t do it are too many.

Roxani-Eleni Garafalaki

Hypermobility is the ability to move joints beyond the normal range of movement, and is most common in young people, women and in those of Asian and Afro-Caribbean heritage.

Hypermobility is now recognized as a spectrum. At one end of the spectrum it causes no symptoms; but at the other end are conditions such as Ehlers-Danlos syndrome which can have serious complications. In between these extremes are various other hypermobility spectrum disorders (HSDs).

Hypermobile people are more prone to dislocate their joints and to injure the soft tissues around the joints. Their balance, coordination and proprioception are likely to be impaired, their skin can be thin and stretchy and they are also more likely to have digestive problems. Mental health can also be affected; including, for example, increased levels of anxiety.

The Alexander Technique can help. Recently, as part of the Alexander in Education online conference, Roxani-Eleni Garafalaki was interviewed. She is an Alexander Technique teacher who is a strong proponent of its effectiveness in helping her with her own hypermobility. The interview with her explores her own experience, how hypermobility can adversely affect children in their school environment, and how the Alexander Technique can help.

You can watch the interview here.

Hands-on lessons resume!

New government Covid guidance for ‘close-contact services’ came into force this Monday 13th July. The Alexander Technique comes under this category and so, while I am still teaching online, I have also resumed some in-person lessons at my studio.

There are some provisos, though. I am wearing a visor during sessions, and clients who attend must wear a mask and wash their hands on arrival. There are also sufficient gaps between appointments.

For the time being, I am also only teaching outside in our courtyard space. It is wonderful to teach outside of course – but it is also weather dependent, so both myself and my clients will need to be a bit flexible on lesson times.

I certainly feel that the Alexander Technique is an especially vital skill during these difficult times. To mention just two aspects, Covid has brought about mental health difficulties for many people, and our increased screen time has taken us more than ever out of embodied awareness. The Technique has so much to offer in the face of the challenges posed by our current predicament.

Alexander in Education Conference

The UK’s Alexander in Education Conference has moved online this year due to Covid. It’s happening all day on Saturday 4th July. Although we’ll miss meeting up in person, the online format has one huge advantage: anyone and everyone can attend. After a live introduction, all the pre-recorded conference items will be released free of charge on Youtube. ‘Attendees’ can pick which videos they’d like to watch, or they can watch the whole conference in order.

There are presentations covering all bases from nursery, primary and secondary education through to university level. Topics include the Alexander Technique in music, acting, sports and foreign languages. A panel of young people have also been invited to take part.

I often work with young musicians and my own presentation for the Conference reflects that, even though its title is ‘The Power of Images for Teaching Alexander Technique to Young People’. Below are a couple of screenshots.

The link for the conference is here.

Look forward to seeing you there!

Alexander Technique for new mothers and fathers

I’m a first-time father and the challenge of looking after my 12-week-old tests my Alexander Technique training on a daily basis. The Technique helps me look after myself when picking him up and carrying him, and helps me maintain emotional balance too. We’ve decided not to use a pushchair at all, and so are discovering the myriad ways you can carry a baby, such as with the Hana wrap.

Looking after a newborn tests your coordination in a multitude of ways. The important thing to realise is that there are both good ways and poor ways to adapt – and the Alexander Technique shows you how. For one thing, just holding a baby changes your centre of mass and your postural system will need to adapt to that in a healthy way. Picking up and putting down a baby needs extra care so that you can maintain your best coordination as you do so. For example, raising and lowering a baby into a crib is best done by using your powerful leg muscles, allowing your back to lengthen and letting your head balance lightly on top of your spine.

Breastfeeding poses many challenges for new mothers, and unconscious habits such as lifting up the shoulders or hunching can really get in the way, draining your energy and causing you aches and pains. Nicola Hanefield is currently doing some research into ‘maternal care in the post-partum with the Alexander Technique’, so if you have a baby between 4 and 13 months old, you might be interested in participating. Here is a still from one of her videos:

© Nicola Hanefield

You can learn more about her research and benefit from the instructional videos for mothers she has both created and collated here.

Alexander Technique Science

I’ve now updated my website with a short review of some of the science behind the Alexander Technique.

The Alexander Technique is over a hundred years old, and over the years practitioners and others have looked to science for models that might best explain how it works. Despite these models now being out of date, in the absence of other explanations, they have unfortunately persisted as popular explanations. This has been unhelpful.

Fortunately, there is a growing body of research into the Alexander Technique which uses modern scientific methods and which appears in peer-reviewed journals. Indeed there has been something of a renaissance in the scientific study of the Alexander Technique, and several scientists are now studying the Alexander Technique as one of their main research topics.

My short review of Alexander Technique science is divided into two sections: ‘Health Benefits’ and ‘How AT Works’. The page also has links to a few of my own publications on Alexander Technique and science.

You can visit the page here.

Alexander Technique and hanging out the washing

The birth of my first child just weeks ago significantly reduced the bandwith which the Covid crisis could take up in my mind. We were self-isolating beforehand, but now we’re in a different kind of bubble – a post-birth haze, brought on by beautiful weather, disrupted routines and lack of sleep. There is sadness of course, knowing that we cannot introduce our son to family and friends.

One of the many changes to my routine that I couldn’t help but notice is that we’ve been doing LOTS of washing. Every day. And yet, hanging out the washing has become a surprisingly joyful experience for me, aided perhaps by a poem that lodged itself in my brain many years ago. It took a bit of digging to track it down, but here it is:

The Clothes Pin

How much better it is
to carry wood to the fire
than to moan about your life.
How much better
to throw the garbage
onto the compost, or to pin the clean
sheet on the line,
With a gray-brown wooden clothes pin

by Jane Kenyon

In this time of crisis, the emotional need for such present-mindedness rings truer than ever. And for those unfamiliar with the Alexander Technique, it may come as something of a shock that too much focus on the past or future also ruins our physical coordination. Alexander himself referred to such unhelpful mental attitudes as ‘mind wandering’ and ‘end-gaining’.

The fact is, you can only attend to and improve your coordination in the present moment. And it is the Alexander Technique which shows you how.

Alexander Technique: cancelled for the first time in 100 years

Yesterday, the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique (STAT) put out a statement to its members. They’ve asked us:

to cease face to face teaching with immediate effect. You may find that you can continue to contact your clients online and encourage reading about the Alexander Technique. It is a difficult decision to take given the impact it will have on our livelihoods, but it is the right thing to do to assist in stemming the spread of coronavirus.

– STAT Updated Guidelines Regarding Teaching Alexander Technique Hands-On

The essence, joy and power of the Alexander Technique is in the communication of improved ‘use of the self’ through the teacher’s hands. This is the unique method which FM Alexander (the originator of the Alexander Technique) developed in Australia and then refined on his arrival in London in 1904.

It is therefore remarkable that this hands-on practice now needs to cease for the time being because of the Coronavirus. And yet one of the fascinating characteristics of the Alexander Technique is that it is an inner journey which each individual must embark on. This means that, in the current time of social distancing, there is plenty for students of the Technique to explore, whether that’s through reading, individual experimentation or taking Alexander Technique lessons online.

Such wonderful progress can be seen in my students after even just a few hands-on lessons at my studio. However, for now, as the Alexander Technique community begins to experiment more with ‘hands-free’ approaches, we can remind ourselves that Alexander was his own teacher, and take confidence from his own remark that:

Anyone can do what I do, if they will do what I did.

Alexander Technique for children: the ‘Developing Self’

This weekend I had the privilege of welcoming two of the pioneers of the Alexander Technique to Bristol: Sue Merry and Judith Kleinman.  They are both experts in bringing the Technique into educational settings, whether that’s primary and secondary schools or universities and colleges.

Over two weekend workshops in Bristol, Sue and Judith introduced their work to Alexander Technique teachers from as far afield as Italy, Spain and Ireland. Judith has masterminded the Alexander Technique curricula at the Royal College of Music, and Sue is a trailblazer at the Educare Small School in Kingston, where Alexander Technique is woven seamlessly into each school day. You can see more about what they have created at thedevelopingself.net.

There is huge potential to bring the wisdom of the Alexander Technique into educational settings. As Judith put it so beautifully in an email to me after the course, ‘this respectful coming together of folk interested in conveying the work in Education and bridging the gap between Wellbeing and ‘Learning how to Learn’ is so important’.

It is hard to sum up what I personally gained from these recent Bristol workshops. On one level, I learned many new ways of teaching the Alexander Technique. But on another level, these workshops have helped me reach a deeper understanding of why this work is so vital for our young people, caught up as they are in the maelstrom of modern life.

To extend the metaphor, the Alexander Technique offers young people an anchor: a way to find wholeness, peace and self-acceptance in what is too often a clamorous and inhuman world. The Alexander Technique helps them see that being kind to oneself is the first step in being able to function well as a human being. For that alone, it is invaluable.

When did you stop paying attention?

I’ve recently been reading the extraordinary book Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. A passage caught my eye due to its relevance to the Alexander Technique. For around 95% of our 200,000 year existence we lived hunter-gatherer lifestyles. In Harari’s words, during this period, homo sapiens:

mastered not only the surrounding world of animals, plants and objects, but also the internal world of their own bodies and senses. They listened to the slightest movement in the grass to learn whether a snake might be lurking there. They carefully observed the foliage of trees in order to discover fruits, beehives and birds’ nests. They moved with a minimum of effort and noise, and knew how to sit, walk and run in the most agile and efficient manner. Varied and constant use of their bodies made them as fit as marathon runners. They had physical dexterity that people today are unable to achieve even after years of practising yoga or t’ai chi.

What is clear from the above is that one of the key characteristics of early humans was hence the ability to be flexible in how they paid attention. Darting between a keen watchfulness for predators, a focused precision for sharpening flint stones, and a heightened body-sense while hunting prey – the mind as well as the body of homo sapiens was clearly extremely agile.

What is also clear is that modern humans have lost that flexibility of attention. Have you perhaps had the experience of perching for hours in a chair absorbed in a task, such that your sense of your physical self ‘disappears’ – perhaps until your back or neck started aching? If you have, then your experience ties in with what neuroscience now tells us: that a narrowed attention is linked to poor body awareness (a ‘disappearing body’), and that a wide open attention that includes peripheral vision is linked to your fullest body sense. And only when you allow your attention to widen out can you:

  • allow your kinaesthetic or proprioceptive (‘body’) sense to function best;
  • perceive spatial relationships accurately;
  • learn new movement skills;
  • understand body orientation with respect to gravity.

As you deepen your understanding of attention, you’ll begin to realise it is the fundamental ‘lens’ through which you experience the world. This means that if you change your attention habits you’ll change not only what you experience, but how you move around in and relate to the world around you. In short, you’ll rediscover your homo sapiens birthright of an agile mind and body working in harmony.

For more detail on the science behind the link between attention and movement, have a look at my article, ‘The Alexander Technique and Neuroscience: Three Areas of Interest’ on my Research page.

And for information on how to learn the Alexander Technique with me in Bristol, visit my Services page.

Goals – context = misery

Over the last month, there’s been quite a bit popping up in the press about happiness. ‘Trying to be happy could make you miserable’; ‘Brits became less happy amid Brexit deadlock’; ‘The money, job, marriage myth: are you happy yet?’ And so on.

My own view is that happiness can never be within our ‘grasp’: it’s too subtle for that. We can look at this conundrum another way, though. What if there was something we do a lot of the time that consistently adds to our misery? What if this harmful thing is mostly unconscious? Perhaps if we could only stop doing that… well, is it possible that something resembling happiness might turn up more frequently?

F M Alexander, the originator of the Alexander Technique, called this one malevolent thing ‘end-gaining’. Conceptualizing it is half the battle, so here goes:

End-gaining is an attitude where you’re obsessively focusing on a goal without working out how best to achieve it.

But why might understanding this concept be so important for our happiness? The reason is that the unconscious drip-drip-drip of end-gaining takes its toll on us in all sorts of ways: physically, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually.

To take just the first of these, one of Alexander’s greatest insights was that end-gaining is always accompanied by excess physical tension. End-gaining causes us to round our shoulders, crane our heads forward and over-contract, and in that way it diminishes us in a literal sense. This interference in our musculoskeletal system makes any physical task more difficult, and also makes us more susceptible to discomfort, pain or injury. Not only that, our ‘stature’ in the eyes of others is also reduced.

My job is to help students understand how negative physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual effects all follow as a result of end-gaining. I cover the subject in detail in one-to-one Alexander Technique lessons, and in the exclusive reading material I have created for my students.

In summary, focusing on a goal at the expense of your overall physical coordination and mental agility leads to an unhappy curtailing of your potential as a human being. Or, as the title of this blog states:

goals – context = misery

Finding a way to climb out of the holes that we’ve dug for ourselves is the point of the Alexander Technique. You can find out more about how it works here.