“What’s going on with our sofas? They’re getting softer, slouchier and more uncomfortable – and they’re damaging our health. It’s time for a sit – down protest, says Matt Rudd” This from the Home Section of the Sunday Times, March 24, 2016.
I was saying this back in 1997. Pupils were complaining of back ache from sitting on their, or their friends sofas as well as other seats they encountered. I spent years, yes years, looking for arm chairs and sofas for my own home that were comfortable and not an aesthetic disaster. So incensed was I, that I started the Campaign for Better Seating to raise awareness of the link between bad furniture, bad posture, and back pain.
A good seat, like a good mattress, should support the body allowing the muscles to relax in a good posture. Most are too low, too soft, too deep. The sitter ends up in a C shaped slump, harmful for the spine, the digestion and the breathing. There is more to good design than appearance. A chair is a tool for sitting, and like any tool, should be functional.
Sitting can seriously damage your health!
High Intensity Interval Training has been much in the news here in Britain since Dr Michael Mosley’s TV documentary over a year ago. I’ve seen the TV show, read the book,* I’m still waiting for the tee shirt. There is nothing new about interval training, but the new science about the health benefits is impressive.
The TV documentary showed Michael Mosley almost literally ‘busting a gut’ he was pulling down so much as he cycled as hard as he could for 20 seconds. I have started attacking every hill at top speed on my usual bike routes to get in some HIT, and have to say that it does encourage one to pull down and hunch up something awful. One of the criticisms of ‘Fast Exercise’ is that if you spend your day hunched over a computer, hunching over a stationary bike is not the best way to exercise.
But, you don’t have to give into the urge, you can continue to be upright, broad shouldered, and still give it all you’ve got. Good technique, whether it is Alexander Technique, or cycling technique is important. It will deliver more health benefits with fewer injuries. It is never just what you do, but how you do it.
*Fast Exercise by M. Mosley with P. Bee, Short Books 2013
The majority of sports injuries, and many less dramatic aches and pains, are not injuries to the muscles, but to the connective tissue. Most sensory nerves which tell us we are in pain, are also in the connective tissue, not the muscle. An exciting area of research in recent years, is into connective tissue, or fascia. The new findings are influencing sports training, general exercise and rehabilitation work. The work of
Tom Myers of Anatomy Trains links muscles and areas of the body in a completely new way which makes more sense of how the body functions than traditional anatomy. Robert Schliep, a German scientist has developed Fascial Training. He advocates incorporating techniques to condition the connective tissue into normal sports training, believing this could reduce injury, among other benefits.
There is connective tissue everywhere in the body, but there are areas where there are large concentrations. One of these is the lower back, where so many painful problems occur. Pilates, yoga, the Alexander Technique and others, have exploited the properties of fascia long before science could explain it. Now that science is catching up and giving us more information, we can develop fascial training to be even more helpful.
Tension, stress, we all know it’s bad for us. We are warned of the danger to our health if we don’t learn to relax. But it would seem it’s not so easy to ‘just relax’.
Several new pupils have started lessons recently, all complaining of multiple aches and pains. While they have different histories, they feel similar to my hands. Their bodies feel encased in a shell, a shell of overworking, held, tense tissues. This shell inhibits movement, destroys coordination, impedes circulation, all of which increase pain. Pain causes tense muscles. It’s a vicious cycle.
How to break this cycle? A two week holiday might help, but if we come home and start living, moving and using ourselves the same way as before, we will soon be as tense as before. Relaxation is a quality to take into every aspect of life. It is not a break from real life.
The Alexander Technique is practical training in relaxation. The teacher’s hands sense the tension in the pupil’s body and at the same time help to release it. The teacher gives verbal feed back to the pupil to reinforce the learning experience. The immediacy and detailed practicality of the hands on experience of the Alexander Technique are unique. Relaxation is not just for holidays – it’s for life.
We have had a big building project on at our house which has resulted in the need for lots of painting. I have been crawling around the floor sanding and painting skirting boards, reaching up to paint ceilings, and generally getting into awkward positions – while still needing good eye hand coordination.
It occurred to me that some people would find it difficult to do this in their mid sixties. It is a fact we loose suppleness and strength as we age. It may be true that ‘you are as old as you feel [at least in your head]’; but ageing is not a figment of the imagination!
This is where Pilates helps, and one of the reasons I decided to learn to teach it to my Alexander Technique pupils. Many of the aches, pains and disabilities of aging can be avoided or at least postponed by regular stretching and muscle conditioning. Good posture and coordination are not enough to allow you to climb a ladder, lift a heavy sack, or paint the skirting boards with ease – not once you are past the first flush of youth. There may be some stiffness the next day from unaccustomed activity, so knowing some simple exercises to ease it out is useful. There are no excuses not to go up the ladder again!
In this bitterly cold weather, the tendency to pull our heads down into scarves and collars, and pull our shoulders up to our ears in an attempt to stay warm, is hard to resist. But, don’t go there! It will just give you a stiff neck and aching shoulders, like other activities that encourage hunched shoulders and tense necks – lap tops and computers being among the worst culprits.
For those of you who have had Alexander lessons, remember to free your neck to let your head float; let your shoulders relax and widen into the big V up the front and down the back.
For those who haven’t had Alexander lessons, book a lesson to be initiated into the mysteries of the Alexander Technique and banish stiff necks and tense shoulders from your life.
Warning – sitting here could damage your health! Or – The Perils of Christmas. During the holiday season, people often sit much more than usual, and particularly they sit on the sofa. I was reminded of the perils of this when a new pupil related how his neck was worse after the weekend when he had spent a lot of time on the sofa. He sits at work, but has improved his work station and chair and with the help of his Alexander lessons has a good position.
We all want to relax on the sofa, but a good design should allow us to relax supported in a good posture. Unfortunately, the average model does not do this – too deep for the average thigh, too low, too soft, too raked back. Some furniture is so bad that if you suffer from back or neck pain, it will cause discomfort even with the best posture in the world.
We can’t dash out and replace most of the seat furniture in our house, although this might make a big difference to our spinal health. Try improving the sofa with throw pillows at the back, and maybe a board under the seat cushions. What someone called ‘guerrilla ergonomics.’
And don’t sit there [no matter how well] too long. Go out for a walk. Exercise is good for us, but even better if we exercise with good Alexander use.
Yes, it’s that time of year again, and the perennial question of what to give to whom. Why not give an introductory Alexander lesson to a family member or friend? Many fans of the Alexander Technique had their first lessons as a gift.
When people ask me about giving some lessons as a present, I always ask if there has been a discussion on the subject. Does the potential recipient know about the Alexander Technique; are they enthusiastic about it, or at least willing to give it a try? The Technique does require the active participation of the pupil. If someone is drug to lessons kicking and screaming, it won’t work! Having said that, I have had some very sceptical people who were won round by the experience they had.
There are gift vouchers available.
I have just finished reading the latest Alexander book -‘ Playing with Posture, positive child development with the Alexander Technique’ by Cambridge Alexander Teacher Sue Holladay – and can thoroughly recommend it. Written as a guide for parents, it would be just as useful for school teachers, music teachers or anyone involved with children. Parents themselves, or even non-parents, will find it a helpful companion when having Alexander lessons. The Technique is explained simply and clearly. The book is full of useful ideas for applying the Alexander Technique in all areas of life, from dealing with over excited children to dealing with the vacuum cleaner. There is an extensive list of games to play with children to instil body and mind awareness, poise and grace, good posture and coordination, but in a fun, creative way. Some of these could be useful for adults as well.
The word playing in the title is significant, and it has a great cover! To have a look, or buy the book, price £9.99, go to www.hiteltd.co.uk
October 8 – 14 is the 9th Alexander Technique Awareness Week! The theme this year is Poised for Life. It is possible to try the Technique by having a half price lesson from participating teachers. Most teachers will be participating – I certainly will. Just get in touch with a teacher, or ask for a voucher to give to a friend or family member who hasn’t yet tried the Technique for themselves. Voucher’s can be used for at least a month after the Awareness Week.
The first Alexander Awareness Week was in 2004 to commemorate F.M. Alexander arriving in London from Australia in 1904. He had been teaching there for some years and was known as the Breathing Man because of his work with people with breathing and throat problems. Alexander started his work because of his own problems with breathing and speaking on stage. To find out more about F.M. Alexander, or the Awareness Week, go to the profession’s website at www.stat.org.uk