From Hopeless Teenager to Posture Coach

  Me slouching at age 9

Me slouching at age 9

  That's me on my first day at New York University, age 18.  Hips and shoulders visibly out of alignment from scoliosis

That's me on my first day at New York University, age 18.  Hips and shoulders visibly out of alignment from scoliosis

People tend to assume that I've always had good posture and that it's just easy for me.  That couldn't be further from the truth.  At age 9, I was diagnosed with scoliosis.  Scoliosis is when the spine curves to the side.  The spine has normal curves that go front to back and act as natural shock absorbers. but a lateral (sideways curve) creates an imbalance.  Severe scoliosis can lead to more serious issues or more extreme treatment, such as surgery.

Following a growth spurt at age 13 that caused my scoliosis to worsen, I began wearing a back brace until I stopped growing to help prevent further curvature.  I didn't finish growing until I was 17, so I spent 5 years wearing a hard, plastic brace that fit tightly around my torso and made it hard to breath and eat.  The brace also prevented torso from naturally supporting itself...what we might call core support, causing a lot of extra work to go on in other places, such as my neck and shoulders...not to mention that the brace was extremely uncomfortable.  Te brace may have prevented my scoliosis from worsening, but it wrought havoc on my posture.


In 1997 at age 18, I began my undergraduate degree in theatre at New York University.  I was thrilled to be there, but I quickly learned that my body was, well, dumb from the poor postural habits I'd developed.   It had a mind of it's own and didn't seem to do what I wanted it to do.  I got all sorts of helpful instructions in acting classes and voice classes and I really had no idea how to put them into practice.  Trying harder lead to nothing more than feeling embarrassed and frustrated.  I even felt uncomfortable socially and lacked confidence because I knew that my classmates knew that I just wasn't "getting" what I was supposed to be learning.  I was very discourage and assumed that I simply wasn't very talented.

In addition to the learning and social difficulties I was experiencing from feeling "dumb" in my body, I was pretty much uncomfortable all the time.  I felt restless and it was hard to sit or stand still for more than about a minute.  I really had no idea what was wrong or what I could do.  One day, my voice teacher suggested that I push my shoulders down (my shoulders were up to my ears).  I tried it and it was so painful that I was in tears.  This wasn't the solution.  But what was?

  Me this past year, age 38 and standing tall, offering a corporate workshop

Me this past year, age 38 and standing tall, offering a corporate workshop

In my third year at NYU, the students in my drama program had a required class in something I'd never heard of called The Alexander Technique.  Walking into the class, I really had no idea what I was going to be doing.  Was it a stretching or movement class?  Would we be doing script analysis?  Was Alexander a playwright?

The class ended up being none of these things.  It was about postural habits and it was life-changing for me.  When the teacher worked with me, I could actually start to feel what my body was doing.  Before the class, I had a vague sense of not feeling well, feeling tired, stressed, stiff or restless all the time, and generally just not together.  The amount of change that I got from just the first few classes was so significant that I started taking weekly private lessons.  I started to feel as if a lightbulb, a kinesthetic lightbulb, had been turned on.  I could feel what my habits were and I was learning to organize or coordinate my body in a different way so that everything was working more in unison.  It felt like my body's mind was my mind.  I was driving the ship.

These changes made a huge impact on my ability to focus and learn and quickly make progress in my acting a voice classes.  I could follow instructions much more easily now because I felt in control of my body.  Learning new skills is something I feel more and more confident with.  I enjoy exercise and have taken up running, whereas I used to just get tired and sick if I worked out.  The Alexander Technique helped that constant restless, tired, and stressed feeling go away.  I can sit and stand still and upright and feel very comfortable.
 

What’s the first word that comes to mind when you think of posture?  What is your "posture" exactly?  How do you improve it effectively without feeling uncomfortable and stiff?

Here are two definitions of posture from the Merriam Webster Dictionary:

1 - The position or bearing of the body whether characteristic or assumed for a special purpose

2 - a conscious mental or outward behavioral attitude

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The first thing that I noted about these two definitions is that, neither of them describes posture as “standing up straight”.  When I work with people they do learn stand up much straighter, but not by holding themselves up stiffly or in a locked position.  Maintaining one perfect position isn't the key to improving your posture.  Instead, your posture is the way you hold yourself in any position or movement.  It’s how you hold yourself when you, check your phone, walk, eat soup, sit at work, and have a conversation.  It’s not the actual position or movement itself, but how you are holding yourself while doing it.  

Often the way we stand and sit is “characteristic” or habitual.  When things are habitual, our experience of them can get warped...meaning that the way that we feel that we’re standing, sitting, and moving doesn’t always reflect how we are actually doing these things.  Have you ever been surprised or horrified about your posture in a photo or video of yourself having had no idea as to how you were holding yourself when you were in that moment?

Most people see that horrifying photo and then try to change their posture by physically moving in to a new position to try and make themselves appear straighter.  The result is generally stiff, uncomfortable, and unsustainable.  This isn’t good posture.

So what is?

Posture is how we hold ourselves in any position or movement and it’s something we can improve.  That’s part of the story.  The other part is that it’s more holistic than simply a physical stance.  The way we hold ourselves is part of our general behavior and attitude.  It’s physical reflection of how we are feeling and reaction to all sorts of things, examples being stress at work and home, crowded trains, social situations, sitting in one spot and staring a screen for hours…to name a few.

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Another key point is that although your improved posture will likely feel more balanced and easeful, it also may just feel plain strange and wrong until you get used to it.  You also may have to face the situations you find most challenging during your day to make the greatest change in your posture - like rushing to meet a deadline, giving a presentation, spending hours on your computer or phone, or having to interact with someone you find difficult to communicate with.  Learning to be aware of your posture in these situations is key to making lasting changes.

Alexander Technique lessons give you skills to be able to change your posture for the better by becoming more aware of hold your body and to be able to change your postural habits in various situations.  It’s a process that works best with a bit of time a repetition and requires you to practice what you’re learning.  

In my next post, I’ll tell my story and talk about how I went from being in almost constant discomfort, shy, awkward, and struggling in acting school to feeling comfortable in my body, confident, and purposeful.  Stay tuned!  

Changing Postural Habits at Any Age

The Alexander Technique helps people to become more mindful in their bodies so that they can approach activities with skill, confidence, and comfort.  It makes it easier to learn new things, improve on how you go about your day to day activities, and do the things you love to do with less strain and pain.

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Sometimes having confidence that we will be able change habits that seem to be ingrained (like our posture) can be challenging.  Many of my clients in their 20s, 30s, and 40s arrive for their first lesson and ask me if it’s really possible to improve their posture or if they are just too old.

Enter Mary Russell, a client who took a series of lessons with me a couple of years ago.  Within the first few minutes of meeting her, I knew that she would catch on quickly.  She essentially said, “I’m almost 80, I have scoliosis, I’m not in pain and I don’t want to be, and I’m planning on starting a yoga practice”.  She saw her age as a good reason to improve her body awareness and change her postural habits, not a barrier.  She was motivated and it seemed perfectly natural to her that with some work and attention she could change long-ingrained habits.  The combination of her mindset and motivation were very encouraging.    

I recently interviewed Mary about her experience taking Alexander Technique lessons and how she’s been using what she learned since to help with her yoga practice and other aspects of her life.

Lindsay:  How about we start by talking about your yoga practice and why you first took Alexander Technique lessons?

Mary:  I think you have to go back to my age because when I was approaching 80.  I thought, I’ve been doing regular yoga for years.  Yes, I’m fine, but it really hasn’t made me feel that much better except I’m flexible, so what can I do?…and I realized I have to pay more attention to what I’m doing and how I’m doing it.  So I go to the “yellow pages” and these days it’s Google.  I find this teacher in midtown and decided that I would start Alexander lessons because I had done it once before at the 92nd Street Y and it was difficult.  It was extremely difficult…thinking of your body as you were moving and being conscious of it.  I thought I’d try it again, but this time not a group lesson.  Instead I would go individual and that’s how I came upon you and I think I went three months straight, a basic package for 3 months, and it was not easy until I figured out that if I listened to you and paid attention to what I was doing without a terrible amount of effort, my whole body went up and my head actually went up too and I think the added benefit to being in a room with you and having you put your hands on my back…and you saying “Think up”, “Think tall”, and then you would say, “I can feel it, I can feel it in your spine…and that gave me an enormous sense of confidence.

Lindsay:  And you started the yoga after the Alexander lessons, right?

Mary:  I started the yoga after.  And the first day I got into the Iyengar lesson (they had it in levels, so I was in level one, basic)…the instructor went into, “Now, put your mind into where your body is going to go.”  That was a basic premise of Iyengar Yoga…attention, intention, be conscious of what your doing as much as you can because it’s not easy.  The Alexander lessons gave me the mindset for it and it’s not just an artificial mindset, I mean I really got it.  And if you really get it, then you’re not home free, but at least you’re over that hump.

Lindsay:  Can you explain what you mean by “really get it”?

Mary:  Yeah, you’re mind and your body have to mesh like clasped hands, so that when you are standing up, for example, you’re thinking about it.  I mean some of standing up is routine, but you’re training your body, it’s a kinesthetic training, so you’re training your body so that after awhile, your body is doing it and then you’re not thinking about it.  It’s happening.  But before that can happen, you have to have the mindset to want to do it because you know it’s going to work.  You need the motivation…

Lindsay:  And what did you find difficult about it?  You said that it wasn’t easy.

Mary:  I have the attention span of a gnat.  You know, something’s bothering you….makes sounds of a gnat flying around. It’s too easy to go off in the great beyond.  At the same time I was reading some of the Buddhist teachings, so that was fitting into it too, how you really just come back to what you’re doing, you don’t let it distract you and then you really get into mindfulness, but really it’s just about paying attention to what you’re doing rather than what you’re going to be doing next or what you did before.

Lindsay:  So being present.

Mary:  Being present, but you know another thing…I was thinking about this…It has something to do with a greater acceptance of your body.  Too often we grow up, or I grew up either starving my body, making it do something, work 12 hours, don’t get enough sleep.  It was almost like my body was “them” and “me” was trying to make it go along with what I wanted to do and this might be too esoteric, but I don’t think so.

Lindsay:  No

Mary:  The Alexander started on and the Iyengar has pushed me along to a greater acceptance of who I am physically, what my limitations are.  I’m in a yoga class with 20, 30, 40 year-olds…a whole wide range of ages.  I can’t do half of the things that some of them can do, but it doesn’t matter because I’m pushing myself to some extent to do more and usually when you get to be older, say 70 or 80, people are saying “can I help you?”  Can I hold the chair for you?  It also helps you get out of that mindset that people can put you in.

Lindsay:  Would you say that Alexander has helped make this Yoga class more accessible?

Mary:  The Alexander Technique helped me learn my body more and be more neutral about what it can do instead of admonishing all the time.  I think the Alexander Technique was part of a broader approach for me, but the basic premise that I took away from my practice with you was really that the mind came together with the body.  There was a motivation.  I could see and I could feel the difference, plus I walked better.

Lindsay:  Do you feel like when you’re getting instructions in the yoga class that it’s easier to sense that you’re following instructions accurately because of your experience with the Alexander Technique.

Mary:  Absolutely, absolutely.

Lindsay:  And do you feel that it’s easier to do things without too much effort or the wrong type of effort?

Mary:  This is just where I am now.  I’ve been putting in a considerable amount of attention into incorporating more lightness and ease into my yoga practice rather than grunt.  The other thing that I like, Lindsay, is the fact this technique isn't the type of thing where you say...“Do this and it works and you’re home free.”...It’s the process more than anything.  It’s just something you keep working on.

Lindsay:  I think some people find that idea of something being process-oriented disappointing or daunting because they think they’ll “never get it”.

Mary:  I think it’s more about some principles that you take with you and apply.  And you could take some of the concepts of the Alexander Technique and apply it to life.  I’ll never forget when you sent out one picture in one of your blogs.  It was of a woman on a computer, bent over with her neck craned on the phone and now I notice people who do that and then you had a picture of a friend at a conference looking at a phone and it was perfect, perfect position.  It’s really being conscious of your body and putting it at ease and if you’re like this (demonstrates slumping), you’re not at ease.

Lindsay:  And are you aware if you are at ease as you go about your day?  Like let’s say you’re making lunch or walking down the street.

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Mary:  It’s on my mind, but it’s not 100% what I’m thinking about.  When I’m chopping something for dinner, I think that I’m leaning on one hip and I have scoliosis and I’m conscious of that.  In 2014 when I began gardening in Carl Schurz Park, I was a wreck.  And it did not help that my zone was on a hill. So it was not just bending but bending at an angle.  Three years later, a big difference.  I attribute it to my daily practice which incorporates both Alexander and Iyengar techniques.

Lindsay:  So you’re able to have it as a kind of background awareness.

Mary:  It’s a background awareness

Lindsay:  Which is what I hope people get out of it.  I don’t want them to have to think really hard all the time.

Mary:  I think in the beginning, it is hard because it’s a different way of paying attention.  I just think it pays off.  But there’s nothing in life that’s a one-stop, go on a diet and you assume the perfect body type for ever and every.  Something happens…you eat too much, you get pregnant.  Life is still hard, but it makes it easier…

Lindsay:  Keeping your balance…

Mary:  That’s very good cause that’s principally what it helps you do, and if you live long enough, life throws you off balance a lot.

Lindsay:  So it’s not about holding a perfect position all the time.  It’s about being able to bounce back and find your center.

Mary:  And think about it…our little world is always moving…we’re not in a stationary environment.  Things are moving.  What’s the most constant thing in life?…change.

Lindsay:  We’re just finishing up. Anything you’d like to add?

Mary:  I think aerobics and pilates are wonderful for you at certain times of your life, but the whole principle for me as your body moves on is paying attention to what it’s saying to you, respecting it, and being mindful of it.  

Let Gravity Be Your Friend

 Hi there, friend!

Hi there, friend!

Happy New Year! 

How about ringing in 2018 by making some positive changes in a very important relationship that you've had for your whole life...you relationship with gravity.

Have you ever thought gravity was to blame for you postural problems?  How about considering that gravity might actually be good for your posture.  Gravity is simply there, challenging us.  When an infant first lifts it's head it begins to figure out how to interface with gravity.  Rolling, crawling walking, bending, dropping things, and pulling things over are all ways that the young learn about gravity.  Children are supervised and educated and homes are child-proofed to make sure that their experiments learning about gravity don't go awry. 

But what about adults?  Many adults and even teens and older children are not interfacing with gravity safely and aren't benefitting from supervision and education!  Most know not to walk to close to the edge of the train platform or that dropping a 20lb weight on their toe will likely involve a trip to the hospital, but one of our biggest dangers in regards to dealing with gravity has nothing to do with anything high or heavy and has much more to do with what you are likely looking at right now as you read this page...your device.  

When you look at your phone, tablet, or computer, where is your body sinking?  Does your head pull back or drop down?  Do your drop or tense your shoulders?  If you're standing, are you sinking into one hip?  Are you aware of the sensation of your feet on the floor and where you feel your weight on your feet?  Are you aware of your body much at all when you're reading or typing on you device?

Gravity isn't really a problem for our posture.  We need it and natural learn to use it well as children and become light, springy, and upright.  Gravity doesn't change.  We do...but poor posture is not inevitable and you don't have to get rid of your phone or quit your job.  It's possible to learn to be more conscious in these everyday activities and to learn how to guide yourself into better posture...and to physically learn what good posture is so you're not holding yourself up straight uncomfortably.

Here's a challenge:  For the next week, simply notice the feeling of your feet on the floor when you're standing and sitting and especially when you pick up your phone.  Don't over-focus on it or try to do anything about (other than placing your feet back on the floor if you've moved them).  Just notice that the ground is there supporting you.

You can also try out my constructive rest audio guide and learn how to increase awareness and use gravity to help let go of everyday tension while lying on your back.

Gravity will be your friend, if you allow it to be!

 

Is that what my posture looks like?!?!

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The first question that I ask a new client is why they've come to see me.  They've come to improve their posture, obviously, but why?  Are they in pain?  Do they want to look and feel more confident?  Move more efficiently in order to improve their workout?  Many people take Alexander Technique lessons with me for these reasons, but there's another very common one...their mom, husband, girlfriend, brother, best friend, boss, director, soon-to-be in laws, or the person they went on a date with last Friday night told them that their posture is terrible.  Worst part is that they are hardly aware of their terrible posture until it's become beyond terrible or they see themselves in a mirror, window, or photo, which sends them into an embarrassed state of shock.

Folks who fall into this category usually arrive for their lesson panicked.  They think they are a hopeless case that can't be fixed.  First, I usually end up assuring them that their "terrible" posture isn't quite as terrible as they think it is.  Then they want to know what they have to do to fix it.  I then shift the conversation a bit to the topic of awareness.  The biggest problem with this person's posture is that they are unaware of it and most people who come in for any of the above reasons are in some significant way unaware of their body position.

So, why are so many people so unaware of how they are holding their bodies???

The answer is proprioception, our 6th sense.  I'm not talking about psychic abilities, but rather our ability to sense body positioning.  Proprioception is actually it's own sense and has to do with nerves in your joints telling your brain where you are in space.  If you put your hand behind you, can you still sense where it is?  Can you touch your nose with your eyes closed?  (If you do it before the glass of eggnog.) That's your proprioception at work and it mostly works pretty well for most people, even if your posture isn't great, but we tend to adapt to our habits and so does our brain...so your compressed down, squeezed in positioning may actually feel normal or straight even when it's not. 

Here's an example...

When most people come in for a first lesson and they show me what they think is standing up straight, they are actually leaning back.  When I help them align themselves so that they are actually more straight and centered, they feel like they are leaning forward...like they're on a ski slope...and they look at me, helpless again, swearing that they will never be able to maintain this more natural way of standing.  After a few lessons, they start to realize that they can and that what felt new and weird now feels more normal and the old "bad" posture is harder to go back to because it doesn't feel right anymore.

I used to dread seeing myself on video because how I looked seemed so foreign compared to how I felt I looked from the inside.  The Alexander Technique helped me make my proprioception more accurate.  How I feel like I'm standing and moving is more often what I'm actually doing.  I'm not shocked and I don't feel like I want to hide when I see myself on video or take a selfie.

Posture and Awareness - Sensing Space

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An effective and fun way to work on your posture is to begin to notice how it is influenced by the space around you.  One of my clients who commutes daily to New York City through Grand Central Station, has learned to use her sense of this vast space to her advantage.  Improving posture could be described as more fully taking up all of your own space, so it can be interesting and useful to notice how we relate to external environments, what helps us feel expanded, compressed, contained, heavy, light, and so on.  Walking through the station helps her to feel expanded, especially in an upward direction.  She imagines the top of her head aiming toward the ceiling 125 feet (84m) above as she passes through the main concourse., which lends itself especially well to this experiment.  

Now let's change scenes and enter a different sort of space that she frequently inhabits...a corporate environment.  One day she arrived at her lesson after a day of work, which she had finished up in her cubicle on a phone call.  As her call came to a close, preparations for an office relocation were beginning to unfold (literally around her).  As she sat in her cubicle, the panels of the other workstations were coming down and her cube gradually became an enclosed little island in a vast office space...almost like working in a little pod in the middle of an empty main concourse at Grand Central.

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Cubicles divide up large, open office spaces to cut down on distraction, to help us focus, and offer some privacy while working.  Add in a screen, a phone, and a deadline though and you might become so focused that you literally forget where you are.  When you forget your body, you are probably compromising your posture and creating a lot of tension and strain by jutting your chin toward the screen, slumping, pulling your shoulders forward, lifting your chest, or tensing your legs and feet.  I'm not suggesting that you take down your cubicle walls, but you could simply use your awareness and attention to bring some of your focus out into the broader space above you, behind you and out to your sides.  Listen to the sounds around you to help bring your focus out.  Get creative with it and think about how the room would feel if the cubicle walls were removed.  Imagine you're in your cubicle in the middle of Grand Central Station!  Even if you're in a open-layout workspace, you can use your awareness and focus to help you stay centered and balanced in your body.  Try it out for yourself!

Improving Posture Means Getting Yourself Organized

Good posture isn't about standing up straight.  It's about getting organized.  I've been seriously pondering how I can better organize my stuff.  I've been guilty of taking clutter and instead of sorting through it and tidying it up, stuffing it haphazardly into a closet, cabinet, or shelf.  The clutter isn't gone.  It's just been moved and eventually the spot where I keep putting it will fill up.  

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Similarly if you try and fix your posture by lifting your chin, lifting, your chest, pulling your shoulders back, sucking your belly in, or tucking your pelvis, you'll be doing the same thing.  You're taking tension from one place and moving it somewhere else or swap slumping forward for slumping backward.  Sit in a chair and slouch and then pull yourself up.  You may or may not feel it, but if you pull yourself up with your chest and upper back or by pulling your shoulders back, you end up leaning back and really just slouching backwards.  Try it in front of a mirror.

New clients come to me looking to change their posture because what they are doing isn't working.  It's like filling your closet, closing then door, walking away and then finding that everything has spilled out.  These quick fixes aren't sustainable.  How many times have you tried to sit up straight at work and found yourself slumping within minutes?

The problem isn't sitting or standing up straight.  It's how people go about it.  It should actually be comfortable.  Hoisting yourself up and then just as soon collapsing probably isn't very comfortable, is it?  And you may wonder how having good posture can ever feel good and be sustainable.

It can.  You just need to get organized.  And that's where the Alexander Technique comes in.  Continuing with the home and clutter analogy, you may have heard of the popular website fly lady.net  Flylady asks, "Have you been living in CHAOS?  FlyLady is here to help you get your home organized! She teaches you to eliminate your clutter and establish simple routines for getting your home clean!"

Let's change her pitch to fit the Alexander Technique...."Does improving your posture feel like CHAOS?  The Alexander Technique is here to help you get your body organized.  It teaches you how to eliminate tension that's putting you wrong and establish simple routines for changing long-held habits."

The flylady guides us to organize our homes by starting with the kitchen sink.  Make it shine and get your kitchen sparkling before you move on to anything else.  The Alexander Technique helps you get organized by starting with your head and neck.  Why?  Your head is right on top of your neck and it weighs 10-12lbs!  And it's the top-most part of your body.  So what that means is that if your neck gets tense, like it might if you're straining to look at your screen, the tension in your neck is pulling your head down, putting a lot of pressure on your back, hips, and legs.  In order to begin resolving any other postural issues, we have to start by reducing neck tension to relieve the pressure of the head pulling down onto the spine (think taking the lid of the jack-in-the box.)  

Here's what to do to get started.  You've got to get the top of your head to aim up toward the ceiling.  Not your eyes, not your face, but the very top of your head.  Put your hand there.  Feel how high it is.  Give it a little scratch (right in the center of the top of your head).  Now take your hand away.  Do you still feel where you scratched?  That's the top.  Now that you're aware of it, imagine that there's an arrow pointing up to the ceiling right from that point.  Don't pull up (that will make you stiff), just aim up.  Think up.  Orient yourself up.  

Taking lessons or classes can help you understand this concept more clearly and what else follows on the road to better posture, but you can start right now as you're reading this.  Just scratch your head and aim up from there.  

Now I'm going to tackle a sink full of dishes.

 

 

 

Is that me skateboarding? Posture, Fitness, and Balance

When I was a kid, I just assumed that skateboarding was something that I couldn't do.  The most fun I ever had with a skateboard was posing my cat on one so that she looked like she was pushing off with one of her back legs and taking a picture.  If I'd had four legs, maybe I would have succeeded.  Other 2-legged humans managed to do it though, so I simply watched in awe.  I could ride a bicycle, ice skate, and roller skate just fine.  Get me on a skateboard and it was like I suddenly had no feet or legs and like if I didn't abandon ship quickly, I would soon land on my bottom.

Fast forward to this April, age 37.  I was in Ireland assisting with a workshop on Alexander Technique and running and one of the participants brought his skateboard to the track.  I suddenly had the urge to give it a try.  No uneven sidewalk, twigs, traffic, or pedestrians to worry about.  It seemed relatively risk-free, yet I still expected that I was simply humoring myself by making the attempt.  Within the past year I had mastered the art of riding the two-wheeled scooters that my daughters ride, but those have handles, so that accomplishment didn't give me any confidence.  I put one foot on the board, pushed off and to my surprise found myself easily placing a second foot on the board.  I kept going and realized that I could speed up and even turn a little.

To what can I attribute this improved agility and balance in an activity that 25 years earlier I had concluded I just couldn't do?  First, the Alexander Technique has given me the ability to stop the habit that I began at age 6 or 7 of holding myself up with my neck and shoulders.  Without the Alexander Technique and with increased computer use, plus add a smart phone, I imagine this all would have gotten worse.  If you're holding yourself up with your upper body, it's hard to sense where your feet are and to feel where your hips knees and ankles actually bend.  You end up compensating in all sorts of ways that throw your balance off and you may not even really feel your feet on the ground.  To sum that up, we could say that my posture and body awareness have improved quite a bit since I began studying the Alexander Technique in my early 20s.  

Also, I've gradually become more active.  I now run regularly and do some strength training.  If you exercise with good posture and body awareness, you're more likely to tone in the right places rather than just exacerbating the "text neck" that you've developed using your smart phone.  Feeling stronger in the right places helps me to stabilize and balance as well.  I guess I have the track to thank in part for my new found abilities!

I followed up my skateboarding discovery with a surfing lesson when I was in San Diego at an Alexander Technique conference a few weeks ago.  I still have a lot to learn, but this time it felt much easier than the first time I took a lesson a few years earlier and I was able to stand up fully on the board most of the time.

I used to think of myself as a slow learner, so it amazes me now how quickly I find myself improving old skills and excelling at new ones thanks to the Alexander Technique!

Getting the most out of your work-out and avoiding strain and injury begins at your desk, on your laptop, and smartphone.  

TRY THIS:
Look down at your phone and do your best slump or scrunch.  Exaggerate it.   Now put the phone down, but maintain the phone posture and try to walk briskly, jog, or lift something with your smart phone posture, often referred to as "text neck".   This is the exaggerated version, but is likely an exaggeration of the work habits that you may be unconsciously taking into your work-out.  

If you're interested in improving your posture and fitness, check out upcoming Art of Running classes and workshops where you can learn how to improve your form, run with more ease, flow, enjoyment, and avoid injury.  Click here for more information.  

Arming You with Handy Posture Tips

Need a hand with your posture?

Whether you're using them to type, wash dishes, throw a ball, or letting them swing by your sides, your arms and hands are part of you and effect your posture.  Your whole body, your thoughts, feelings and environment all have an impact on your posture, but today we'll take a closer look at arms and hands and I'll offer you some handy tips that you may find especially handy when using your smartphone or when you are at your desk.

First, I want to review a bit about staying upright.  As I'm talking about your arms, I'll also be reminding you to let your body lengthen upward.  One of the simplest ways to get this upward direction going is to bring your attention to the very top of your head.  Try scratching the top of your head and then take your hand away.  Do you feel where you scratched?  Think of that spot that you feel aiming upwards toward the ceiling.  See if you can just have that intention without pulling up or moving your head around.  Good posture is not so much about positioning as it is about having an upward intention.  So often throughout our day, we pull ourselves down, sometimes unconsciously.  Having an upward intention helps those downward pulls to let go and unwind rather than adding more strain to hoist or pull yourself up.  Pulling up doesn't lead to a sustainable posture.  Try it.  How long do you want to stay there?  Probably not long.  So, keep that awareness of your top-most point (where you scratched the top of your head) and have the upward intention...now onto the arms and hands...

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Arms and Hands

Arms and hands are a pretty odd and unusual thing on this planet, but they give us great advantage.  They can also pull us down, tense us up, and generally mess with our posture.  Most of our vertebrate friends are on all fours.  They can't pick apples, play the piano, or bake a cake (though I'm sure someone will prove me wrong and post a YouTube video of a cat doing all of these things). Imagine your favorite 4-legged friend for a moment.  All of its paws or hooves (including the front ones) are on the ground most of the time, constantly being stimulated to respond to gravity, which activates healthy, supportive tone in the animal's back and whole body, while allowing it to breathe totally freely.  Your friend here has good posture and doesn't have to think much about it.

So, where are your arms and hands now?  How do they feel?  Tight?  Heavy?  Not sure?  Are you reading this on your phone?  If so, notice if you are tightening your wrist, upper arm or shoulder to hold the phone.  Try to make more of the effort come from your hand, rather than further up the arm.  Imagine your find fingers lengthening around the phone and not just tensing to hold it.  When you hold things, you still grip them without strain simply by thinking of the effort as wrapping your hand around the object.  

We don't want to over-tense, but holding an object, such as a smartphone, loosely is unnecessary and may lead to excess tension in the wrist.  If a baby has ever grabbed your finger, you've probably noticed that they have quite a grip for such a small person.  The baby is likely not jamming the wrist or over-tensing the upper arm and shoulder.  Like with the cat or dog, the baby hasn't interfered with his/her coordination and the use of their arms and hands contributes to good posture rather than tensing things up.

Here's a little game...Put your hand out and ask a friend to hand you your phone with your eyes closed. Notice if your hand naturally does more of the work and if there is less gripping elsewhere.  Then see if you can keep that going with your eyes open.

Here are two more tips for when you're at your desk:

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Take frequent breaks and raise your arms up without hiking up the shoulders.  Extend your fingers and imagine that the tips of your fingers are leading your arms out of your sides and back. Keep the idea of your head aiming up as you lower your arms back to your keyboard.  As you lower them and as you reach the keyboard, maintain the idea/sensation of your arms being lively and connected to your back.  Most importantly, don't let them flop and get heavy at the last minute.

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Place your hands flat on desk, palms down.  Allow your hands to melt into the desk and think of your palms widening and fingers lengthening (all the way to the finger tips).  Release gripping that may have accumulated from typing or using your mouse.  Maintain the upward intention of the top of the head.

When clicking the mouse or typing, let the fingers do the work.  Don't tense the hands, wrists, and shoulders.

When walking:

Allow your arms to swing naturally as often as possible.  This can be challenging if you carry a lot of stuff.  Try to carry less as often as possible and keep the arms lively and swinging. 

If you are putting any of these suggestions to use, let me know how it's going in the comments below.  Cat videos welcome as well!

 

Guest Blogger, Dan Cayer: The 4 Biggest Myths about Learning to Swim

Looking to improve your swimming?  Work with Dan Cayer - Alexander Technique teacher and Art of Swimming Instructor

Learning to swim is a major bucket list activity, and for many people it stays on that list far too long because of basic misunderstandings about what it takes to swim. Recently, I met a woman in her 40s who was ashamed to admit that after months of group lessons, she still couldn’t swim more than a couple yards without total exhaustion. She described herself as “unteachable,” and figured that she just wasn’t a “water person.”

As I worked with her, it was clear that she had as much swim capability as the next person, it’s just that she was trying to learn in the wrong way. In this article, I’ll debunk 4 swimming myths that I’ve observed in my years watching people go from hugging the shallow end to swimming out past the waves. I’ll also tell you what to look for when evaluating a potential swim teacher.

Myth 1: Only very fit people can swim.

Baloney. Go to any pool at 10 in the morning on a weekday and tell me if you don’t see a number of elderly adults plodding their way back and forth across the pool. You won’t confuse their lap swimming with Michael Phelps, but what’s impressive is that one can swim for 30 minutes or more without vast reserves of strength.

Sure, swimming can be an intense cardiovascular workout. But most beginners get winded in a lap or two, not because of fitness, but because they haven’t yet learned how to float or use their energy efficiently.

Myth 2: Stroke technique is paramount.

Before you can swim, you should be able to float. It’s fruitless to spend time on the arm pull, for instance, if you haven’t yet learned how to float and bob with confidence. Our brains simply can’t learn new coordination at the same time that it feels we’re drowning. We may know we are only in the shallow end, yet some part of our nervous system will not relax until we’ve gained control in the water.

Learning how to float and not inhale water is the foundation of every other swimming skill.

Myth 3: Drill, baby, drill!

Drills can reinforce specific skills, but they won’t necessarily turn you into an intuitive or efficient swimmer. That’s partially because many of us are extremely results-oriented when it comes to drills, which means we prioritize accomplishment, like swimming a certain distance, rather than relaxing into the water.

When I was a kid, I spent probably hundreds of hours bobbing, floating, diving for rings, and generally rolling around like an otter in the water – much of this before I had learned any of the competitive strokes. Children who are lucky enough to have spent a good deal of time in water already learned how to be comfortable and efficient simply by playing.

Some portion of your swim practice should be undirected and intuitive, letting yourself sink and bob in the shallow end, blowing bubbles under the water, and just pushing off the wall and gliding without being too attached to a specific result. All animals (humans included) learn complex behaviors and skills through play and experimentation. It may feel silly to roll and sink in the shallow end, but I promise it’s time well spent on becoming a natural, confident swimmer.

Myth 4: Sinking is “Bad.”

In my experience, nearly everyone can float to some degree; it’s just that beginners interrupt the floating process by trying to hang onto the surface of the water. Think of an ice cube dropped into water: first it dips down and then bobs back up. If your concept of floating is that you should hover at the surface of the water without any downward movement, then you’re in for a long struggle. I often find that beginners respond better to the idea of “bobbing,” which includes some natural up-and-down motion, as opposed to floating which many people see as a static, permanent position.

Ironically, the most important skill-building exercise for floating is, you guessed it, sinking. In the shallow end, give yourself permission to sink over and over. Specifically, tell your arms, neck, and legs that they do not need to ‘help’ you float. Floating is not a concentrated activity like holding a yoga pose, it’s what happens when we let ourselves go in the water.

Depending on your body characteristics, you may be suspended perfectly horizontally like a raft, or your legs may sink (mine do). Don’t worry whether it’s only your head or upper back that stays close to the surface. By giving up your struggle to float, you will find more buoyancy and that will free you up to think clearly and soon learn how to swim.

That formerly “unteachable,” non-water person, spent hours learning to relax and gradually enjoy being underwater. She practiced sinking and gliding and had fun along the way. I see her swimming laps these days and think, now there’s a natural.

Finding a teacher:

A great swim teacher can help you swim with more ease and confidence than you ever thought possible. But sadly, many people have low expectations from swim instructors. Just as literacy doesn’t qualify a person to be a reading teacher, you should expect more from a swimming teacher than the fact that they know how to swim. How are they going to take you from the shallows to the deep end, and help you enjoy the process along the way?

– Find a teacher who prioritizes making you feel comfortable in the water. It’s a good sign if they’re willing to get in the pool with you.

– Does the person seem friendly or encouraging? You’re going to want to feel comfortable and non-judged in your lessons – trying not to disappoint your teacher is a distraction.

– How do they work with adults who may have anxiety about swimming? Does their answer indicate skill and experience, or a rigid, one-size-fits-all approach?

– Like a piano teacher or family physician, you don’t have to settle on the first one you find. Keep looking until you find a good fit.

Dan Cayer is a teacher and writer committed to helping others change habitual patterns, find freedom from pain, and create a sane relationship with their body. Dan is a certified Alexander Technique teacher, a trained meditation instructor, and offers a unique form of swim instruction called the Art of Swimming, which emphasizes comfort in the water and efficiency of movement. He teaches privately in NYC and also leads retreats. His next retreat in the Hudson Valley is on March 17-19th, "Cultivating Your Body's Wisdom: Posture and Presence."

Posture, Creativity, and Starting the Big Project You've Been Putting Off

In the fall of 2014, I received an email from New York Times editor, Phyllis Korkki asking if she could interview me on the topic of posture and creativity.  She was writing a book about people with creative projects outside of their day jobs or "big things" as she terms them in her book.  It turned out the the book itself was in fact, her own big thing, so her curiosity was far from purely theoretical.  She also was interested in learning about how she could potentially apply what I was teaching about posture to her own writing process. 

I perked up at the prospect of speaking to Ms. Korkki on this topic, as it clearly doesn't separate the physical from the mental.  Often people think of posture as a way to hold yourself, but it's more of a state of being.  The initial interview lead to a series of lessons and continued discussion on the topic

We may think of writing as an intellectual activity, but it's just as physical as soccer.  You're just thinking and using your body in a very different way.  If you're playing a team sport, your attention extends in all directions.  There's a lot of thinking going on, but quick thinking about where to move next.  The mind and body are clearly working in unison and you might find your posture improves without you having to think much about it, just like when sitting at a desk you might find your posture degenerating without even thinking about it.  

If you're writing, sitting, and thinking you're focus is more internal and on the screen or pad of paper in front of you (rather than in all directions tracking where the ball is going), but it's still physical.  You might stop noticing the physical sensation of sitting as you get wrapped up in the process of writing until something hurts or feels uncomfortable.  When things start to feel uncomfortable, you may have less patience and focus.  My personal experience with writing is that my ability to concentrate wanes and I have trouble finding a sense of flow if I don't feel present in my body and my environment.  This disjointed feeling affects my ability to concentrate and to create.

Here's what Korkki says in her book about posture and creativity:

 phyllis Korkki & me at the big thing launch (aug 2016)

phyllis Korkki & me at the big thing launch (aug 2016)

To create something new, I realized, I would need to perform certain actions, like typing, over and over again.  It would be wise for me to consider my physical position as I did so.  Repetitive movements, if done incorrectly, could cause discomfort and injury....Initially I had looked at the posture lessons as a preventative health measure.  But once I started taking them, I realized that good posture literally opens you up to heightened creativity by reconnecting your head to your body.

If you've resolved this new years to get moving on a big project, click here to check out Phyllis Korkki's book, The Big Thing: How to Complete Your Creative Project Even If You're a Lazy, Self-Doubting Procrastinator Like Me.

Anticipation & Posture...And How Texting Relates to Tango

You're opening an email on your phone.  It's not loading.  That little circle keeps spinning.  You refresh the screen five times.  It keeps spinning.  How do your neck and shoulders feel?

The subways were delayed or you were stuck in traffic and you're running late for work.  You get onto a full elevator and press the door close button in quick successions at each floor as people exit.  How are your neck and shoulders now?  Do you feel your feet on the floor?  

In the email loading situation, the wifi was temporarily out and the elevator doors are on a timer, so those door-close buttons are just for show.  Both examples describe a state of anticipation.  If you've been in one of these common situations, would you say you felt present?  Were you aware of you body?  How aware of your surroundings were you?

Now you're trying to finish a project.  You put it off and now you're afraid that you don't have enough time to do it.  Your so tense and focused on finishing that you're not thinking straight and keep making mistakes.  The clock is ticking and you're even further behind.

We can look at posture and the way we use our bodies from various perspectives.  Here I'm looking at how posture relates to anticipation.  Anticipation isn't necessarily bad.  We run into trouble when we over-anticipate.  Neck tightens, shoulders pull in, breathing gets shallow.  There's a purpose for this "startle" response and you may have seen it on a nature documentary when an animal is avoiding a predator, an example of appropriate anticipation for that particular situation because it makes the animal very still and less detectable.  In office work environments things that stress us out, such as as slow email, running late, and deadlines won't be helped by stiffening your body and breathing shallowly.  

We can also under-anticipate, or "check-out".  I realized that this was my problem when learning the tango.  You may be wondering what tango could have to do with using your phone or waiting for your floor when riding the elevator.  It's really the same principle.  When we over-anticipate or push to hard, it doesn't help.  When we under-anticipate, we check and and don't fully engage, so nothing really happens.  I was working in Buenos Aires two weeks ago and decided to take up the challenge of taking some dance lessons.  I went into it thinking that I'm not so good at the following role because I over-anticipate and try to lead, so I gave up on trying to lead, but that didn't work so well either.  I went from straining to get the next step right to being in checked-out, disengaged mode, which didn't get me anywhere either.  There's a state that's somewhere in-between, that's ready, active, and present, but not pushing, pushing, pushing to no avail.  

In my tango lesson I didn't realize that I was disengaged until the teacher insisted over and over again that I should follow like I'm leading.  At first, I wasn't sure what that meant and I tried to take control of the dance, but that didn't work, so I gave up and disengaged, again not really realizing that I was disengaging until I realized that "follow like your leading" simply means to commit to your choice to move fully and with your whole body.  Even though I was technically "following" another person's cue, I could more effectively follow if I did so with the same assurance that I lead with.  Maintaining that presence and assurance meant moving with my whole body in a confident manner, rather than tightening my neck and leading with my chin while I tried to figure out which way to step.

So, let's look at the email loading and the running late for work on the elevator examples again.  Who or what is leading?  When you're email is loading, the leader is your phone or the wifi/cellular data connection.  Does over-anticipating the arrival of the email, pushing for a result by straining your neck and shoulders, do anything to make the email load faster?  No.  Is there any benefit?  No.  Not unless you enjoy having a sore neck and shoulders.  Instead, maybe you could space out and sink down in your chair and five minutes later, you might realize that the email loaded three minutes ago and now you're late for your meeting.  What's the happy in-between state?  Try waiting with confidence and presence.  Feel your feet on the floor.  Notice how your holding your phone  Become aware of your surroundings while you watch that annoying little thing spin.  It may not seem easy, but you could enjoy this little moment you have with nothing to do but to wait for the text to pop up.

Similarly with the elevator, the "door close" button is likely having no affect except to give you the satisfaction that you are exerting control over the speed of machine that you are entrusting to take you upstairs.  On the other hand if you disengage from the situation, you might miss your floor, making you even later.  How about becoming aware of your feet on the floor and taking a moment to simply notice where you are in space and walk into your office calm, without a stiff neck.  Being late in an agitated state of over-anticipation will likely make your lateness more obvious and will certainly make you no less late.

And what about the project with the deadline?  Over-anticipate the deadline and you'll interfere with your ability to calmly focus and get the job done and create a ton of neck and shoulder tension to get yourself into this counterproductive state.  Get too relaxed and you might end up catching up on your favorite Netflix series and never get the job done.  The trick is to meet the challenge without strain.

One of the keys to improving posture is to be mindful and present in your body and your surroundings in a state of readiness, which involves neither over or under-anticipating.  Presence and balance are keys to good posture.  Poor posture can be characterized as being stuck in a constant state of over or under anticipation.  Or some combination of the two.  

Using the framework laid out in this post, see if you can notice when you are straining in anticipation or disengaging from the present moment.  See if you can practice changing some of these habits during every day activities and notice how you feel.  And anticipate if you'd like, just remember to stay present and not tighten your neck.  Think of a child waiting to open a present!

Feel free to share your experience in the comments below.

 

Poor Posture = Driving Through Life with the Emergency Brake On

You are probably familiar with many of the benefits of good posture:
Less back, neck, and shoulder pain
Less stress
More energy and less fatigue
Improved mood
Improved breathing
Greater confidence and more positive body language

...But what is "poor posture" really?  Is it a physical condition?  Slumping?  Something you're born with?  Something you grow into by age 18 that will just keep getting worse?  A sign that of personal inadequacies and shortcomings?  What your iPhone did to you?

If you are concerned about your posture (or someone else is!), no need to fear!  You actually have quite a bit of control over your posture, but the trick is all in how you do it.  

Let's start with what not to do.

Step one:  Don't lift your chin or chest.
Step two:  Don't roll your shoulders back.

These common misconceptions regarding improving posture will actually make your posture worse and make you more tense and uncomfortable.  Start by avoiding those two things.  Why?  Because even though you might think that you are hoisting yourself up and opening up your chest, you are actually pulling your head and upper body back and down, creating some serious compression in the spine, ribs, and shoulder girdle.  In trying to improve things you'll actually be making yourself more tense, stiffer, and shorter.

One way to look at the postural problem is that it's a form of putting on the brakes in your body.  We habitually tend to press ourselves down.  For example, when the neck gets tense (like when you're stressed at work or frustrated train hasn't arrived), the overly tense muscles in the back of the neck pull the head back and down, which creates a domino effect of compression all the way through the body to the feet.  Why?

Because your head weighs 10-12 pounds!  And for every inch that you are pulling your head out of alignment with your spine, it's as if that weight is multiplied by 10!  

Yikes!

In addition to the strain and pain that this downward compression can cause, you then have to use extra effort to counter-act it when we do stuff - normal stuff like walking, running, speaking, and using computers and such.  It's like your driving through your day with the emergency break on.

To help illustrate this point, imagine that you have your hair in a ponytail (just imagine, even if you don't have long hair) and there's someone standing behind you all the time tugging the pony tail...and following you everywhere you go holding onto that ponytail.  

 The image on the left shows the head tipping back and downward as the chin pokes out. the whole body is affected by this downward pressure.  The image on the right shows the head balance on the spine, which facilitates staying upright and relaxed.

The image on the left shows the head tipping back and downward as the chin pokes out. the whole body is affected by this downward pressure.  The image on the right shows the head balance on the spine, which facilitates staying upright and relaxed.

Sounds absurd, right?  Like it would mean you'd have to exert a lot more energy to do anything?    

Well, most people are doing this to themselves to some degree all the time, often unconsciously.  And that's usually the source of poor posture.

Posture isn't just physical.  It's a psychophysical (mind/body) state that we get into in response to our environment, technology, emotions, furniture, and people with whom we interact.  It's easy to get stuck in these habits and then metaphorically spin in circles trying to get out of them.   We can make things worse by trying to fix them in away that intensifies the exact habits that we are trying to change (i.e. The lifting the chest and pulling the shoulders back phenomenon.)

In upcoming posts I will discuss how what I've talked about here relates to moving, interacting with others, and using technology and what you can start doing to change your posture during those activities.

How can you start changing your posture?

Alexander Technique lessons or classes are highly effective in educating people about how to hold themselves in a way that they are undoing these problems rather than compounding them.  Good posture then feels as it should - more relaxed and energizing.

What can you do right now after reading this?  


1 - Don't lift your chest or chin or roll your shoulders back

2 - Do be more in the present moment.  Bring your attention to the space around you to the front , back and above you.  Feel your feet on the ground.  Breathe!  Also try out constructive rest to practice being more present aware of your body.  Click here for my audio guide.

3 - Click here to inquire about Alexander Technique lessons and classes.

The Effect of Baggage on Posture

You may have noticed that I chose the word "baggage" instead of "bag" in the title of this post.  I considered it for a moment, knowing that the focus of the post would be on physically carrying bags (like backpacks, purses, and briefcases), but this is an ideal opportunity to point out how inseparable the physical and emotional aspects of things are.

In a recent post, I discussed how hunching over your smartphone right before and interview or meeting can lead you to feel more fearful and less confident.  Carrying your bag can affect how you feel and come across as well.

You've likely heard the phrase, "She carries the weight of the world on her shoulders," an example of language employed in day-to-day conversation that points to how linked what we do and how we feel are (and vice versa).  

Take a moment to imagine a person walking around with the weight of the world on their shoulders and then imagine the same person carrying a heavy backpack or bag.  The way we carry stuff affects our postural habits, which may then stick with us even when we're not carrying it.  We may in turn feel less "up" (light and springy), in addition to the potential for neck, shoulder, and back pain.

Let's take a look at several types of bags (The backpack, messenger bag, shoulder bag, briefcase or shopping bag, and rolling suitcase) and I'll offer you a few tips on how to keep the spring in your step and the pain out of your neck, back, and shoulders.  You've probably heard the expression "pain in the neck" too!  

The Backpack:  These days children and adults of all ages carry backpacks, especially us city-dwellers who don't have a car to toss an extra sweater and bottle of water into.        

Good News:  Back packs can be worn on both shoulders and more evenly distribute weight.  

Bad News:  There's often a tendency to either lift the shoulders up into the straps or to let the backpack pull your upper back back and down.                                                                      

Try this:  

1) Wear the backpack on both shoulders and cinch up the straps so that the middle of the backpack reaches the middle of your back.  (For children, make sure the backpack isn't too big.)

2)  Don't jut your chin out.  Remind yourself of how tall you are by tapping or scratching the top of your head before you start walking (This will help prevent you from sinking down).  

3) Think about your whole body from the tops of the shoulders and below all the way to the ground supporting the backpack.  Don't lift the shoulders for "extra" support.  You'll only strain.  Holding onto the fronts of the shoulder straps is fine so long as you don't tighten the shoulder, upper arms, or wrists to do so.

The Messenger Bag
 

Good News:  You can add some support with your hand.
 

Bad News:  This one's twisted (literally).  If you're not careful, the bag might put you in a twisted state if you wear it in the typical shoulder/opposite hip style.  

Try This:

1) When you first put the bag on, notices how the weight distributes through your body and see if you can avoid letting it twist you or throw you off balance.  Don't stiffen.  Keep breathing.  Make sure your weight is evenly balanced on both feet.

2)  If you get tired, place your hand (on the same side as the bag) under the bag and give it a little support without tightening your shoulder.

The Shoulder Bag

Good News:  You can hold it high up and close to your body.

Bad News:  It's all on one side, so it might throw you off balance.

Try this:

1) Don't lift your shoulder to support the bag.  

2) If you are holding the strap with your hand, don't over-tense your wrist and forearm

3) Feel your feet on the ground.  Imagine that the weight of the bag is becoming part of your weight and is being supported by your whole body.

The Briefcase or Shopping Bag

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Good News:  You're more likely to put it down when you're standing (ie waiting for a train).

Bad News:  It's held further from your center than other bags, which adds additional challenges for the arms, shoulders, neck, and back

Try This:  

1) If your shoulder wants to do more of the work of holding the bag, transfer that effort to your hand (without tightening your wrist).

2) Bend your elbow slightly.  It's a good way to distribute the effort throughout your arm and remind yourself not to overdo it with the shoulder.

The Rolling Suitcase (or backpack on wheels)

Good News:  You don't have to deal with carrying it.

Bad News:  It's easy to overwork the shoulder and upper back.

Try This:

1) As you are pulling don't tense your upper arm and shoulder into your body.  Use your hand more.

2) Pull the bag, don't let it pull you.  Stand tall. Don't lead with your pelvis or chest as you walk.  

Paying attention to how you carry your bag is one of many ways that you make sure that you arrive at your destination feeling relaxed, energized, and ready for work, an interview, or meeting with a friend or client.

 

How Mindfulness Affects Your Posture

What comes to mind when you hear the term, "mindfulness"?  Before reading further, take a moment to think about what it means.  Perhaps make a mental note or jot down a few words that you associate with it.  Let's call this being mindful about your assumptions about the word "mindfulness".  Notice your associations.  Don't just them or come up with a right answer.  How did you feel and what came up when you saw the word "mindful" in the title of this post?  Why did you decide to click on the post and read further?

I will get to the point of this post soon...how mindfulness affects your posture but first, let's define "mindfulness".  Ellen Langer, who has been researching  mindfulness since 1970, defines it as "the very simple process of noticing new things" and calls it "the essence of engagement."  She also points out that people often confuse mindfulness with "effortful thinking and stress" or with the act of meditation, whereas meditation is a means of developing mindfulness.

 I'm concentrating really hard on being mindful, but i feel really tense!

I'm concentrating really hard on being mindful, but i feel really tense!

If mindfulness is simply noticing, it's often this simple thing that evades us.  When examining concerns regarding posture, many people want to change their posture, but may not be certain of what they are doing to cause the problem in the first place.  Part of figuring that out and changing it starts simply with noticing and this is where The Alexander Technique comes in really handy.  In lessons, the teacher guides you with their hands, so that you can sense your body and how you're holding it more accurately and then as you start to notice the habits, you also learn how to undo them and establish better postural habits.

If an important step to changing your posture is to first notice how you're making the "poor" posture happen in the first place.  At first, you may spend some time simply noticing your body.  I don't mean checking out your waistline in the mirror.  I mean actually sensing your whole body.  This sense is called proprioception.  Our sense of proprioception helps us understand where we are in space, allows us to sense where are limbs are, helps us gauge the amount of effort we need to do something, and includes balance.  To improve your posture, you need to sharpen this sense, which is exactly what Alexander Technique lessons and practicing this sort of mindfulness on your own do.

Take a moment and take note of where in your body you most sense yourself.  Many people who are just starting Alexander Technique lessons come into their first lesson telling me that most of the time they are only sensing clearly from the shoulders up and they aren't fully conscious in their whole body.  They may say that they have very little awareness of their backs.

Try this:

Sit in a chair with a back and sit all the way back with your feet on the floor.  

Notice where you are most aware in your body.  After taking note of that, bring your attention to your back on the back of the chair.

Then bring your attention to your sit-bones (to knobby points at the base of the pelvis) on the seat of the chair.

Notice your feet on the floor.

Bring your awareness to the top of your head.  To better sense the very top of your head, tap it or scratch it a bit and then notice the lingering sensation.  It is common that people sense clearly about up to eye level and that the 3-4 inches above the eyes is kind of vague.  If you want to improve your posture, you'll want to come up to your full height, and in order to do so, it's pretty important to be able to notice the top of your head.  

After noticing your back on the back of the chair, sit-bones on the bottom of the chair, feet on the floor and top of the head a few times, take note of where you are most aware in your body.  Can you sense your whole body more fully?  If so, how did you do that?  Did you do it by moving or creating any muscular effort?  If you followed the instructions, you just did it by noticing (with a little help from your finger to tap the top of your head).  

Now that you've noticed where you are, take a moment to notice two things outside of yourself.  Notice something that you see and something that you hear.  As you take in these stimuli, do you stop noticing where you are?  If so, go back to the areas that you focused on and see if you can continue noticing them while noticing what you see and hear.  If you can do this, you are beginning to learn how  you can stay present and focused on activities, other people, and what's going on around you, while still noticing how you are holding your body and not letting that more internal noticing distract you.  

Ellen Langer's recent article in the Harvard Business review is aptly titled "Mindfulness Isn't Much Harder than Mindlessness".  The effort you are employing to improve your posture may be excessive and possibly worsening the problem.  If you've been trying very hard to hold yourself up straighter to improve your posture, it's likely that you find your efforts uncomfortable and perhaps even painful.  You might pull your shoulders back and lift your chin and chest, which likely leads you to feel stiff and like you're not breathing fully.  Stop trying and start by noticing.  Take Alexander Technique lessons to turn up the volume on your noticing skills and learn how to stay upright in a natural, comfortable way.

Check out my audio guide for "Constructive Rest", a daily practice for learning to be mindful in your body.

Smartphones, Posture, and Confidence

 Photo by AlbinaTiplyashina/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by AlbinaTiplyashina/iStock / Getty Images

 

"Posture doesn’t just reflect our emotional states; it can also cause them," says Amy Cuddy in a recent New York Times Article about the effect that using mobile devices has on our posture.  Cuddy is professor at Harvard Business School and presenter of the popular TED Talk, "Your Body Language Shapes Who Your Are."

You don't have to be an actor to imagine how you might hold your body if you feel a certain way - depress, stressed, frightened...but this process works in the opposite direction as well.  The way in which you hold your body influences how you think and feel.  

Let's look at this phenomenon as a loop or cycle.  Here are two examples:

1) You think and feel a certain way, which influences your posture and then the posture becomes a habit, which in turn reinforces your habitual thoughts and feelings.

2) You adopt a posture based on ways that you sit or stand for work and tasks that you perform (like writing email on your smartphone), which becomes an unconscious habit that you carry around with you, influencing how you think and feel.

According to Cuddy's article, studies suggest that when we use mobile devices and take on a collapsed position, we become less assertive and productive.  Research shows that the smaller the device, the more extreme the effect.

In several prior blog posts, I've offered advice on how to avoid collapsing/slouching when using your smartphone.  Click here for a few simple tips.  Cuddy's article offers tips as well.

Two further pieces of advice...

1) Limit your time using your device and don't glue yourself to it right before a big interview, audition, meeting, or date.

2) Take some Alexander Technique lessons.  You'll learn how to better gauge for yourself whether or not you are collapsing physically and/or beginning to loose your edge and feel less present and confident due to too much time looking down at your iphone. Poor postural habits can cause physical injury, but they can also potentially cost a job, a deal, role, or a second date.  

Challenge:  Put your smartphone away for several hours before and during a holiday event.  Notice your posture and how you feel and interact.

 

Posture on a Post-It

Good evening!  Did you know that post-Its are really good for your posture?

Keep reading to find out what to do with this post-it...including a tip for remembering to think about your posture when using your phone.

Alexander Technique lessons can help us make dramatic changes in terms of how we look and feel.  By dramatic, I mean helping us overcome postural habits that we may have just assumed were there to stay or were so part of "who we are" that we hadn't even noticed them.  There are two major components to making these sorts of changes...

1) Taking lessons - so you can figure out what's going on and get a physical sense of how it can be different.

2) Working on your own - meaning paying attention during your daily activities so that you can integrate what you learn during your lessons into what you do in your life outside of the lessons.

Jessica Chou, a Refinery29 writer, worked with me to create her own "posture challenge", which she shared with readers.  Click here to read the article.  Some key highlights of her process are that she created a simple structure for herself and a few reminders.

Something that appealed to me about the Alexander Technique when I first started taking lessons was that I didn't have to stop and do exercises.  I could just incorporate it into being more conscious in everything that I do.  The potential pitfall to "everything" though is that it might feel overwhelming or not specific or structured enough to get going.

So, I've started to approach the process in more digestible pieces, like you would if you wanted to  make cleaning a messy apartment more manageable.  Do a little bit every day and eventually, you'll get to the whole thing.
Good evening!  Did you know that post-Its are really good for your posture?

Keep reading to find out what to do with this post-it...including a tip for remembering to think about your posture when using your phone.

Alexander Technique lessons can help us make dramatic changes in terms of how we look and feel.  By dramatic, I mean helping us overcome postural habits that we may have just assumed were there to stay or were so part of "who we are" that we hadn't even noticed them.  There are two major components to making these sorts of changes...

1) Taking lessons - so you can figure out what's going on and get a physical sense of how it can be different.

2) Working on your own - meaning paying attention during your daily activities so that you can integrate what you learn during your lessons into what you do in your life outside of the lessons.

Jessica Chou, a Refinery29 writer, worked with me to create her own "posture challenge", which she shared with readers.  Click here to read the article.  Some key highlights of her process are that she created a simple structure for herself and a few reminders.

Something that appealed to me about the Alexander Technique when I first started taking lessons was that I didn't have to stop and do exercises.  I could just incorporate it into being more conscious in everything that I do.  The potential pitfall to "everything" though is that it might feel overwhelming or not specific or structured enough to get going.

So, I've started to approach the process in more digestible pieces, like you would if you wanted to  make cleaning a messy apartment more manageable.  Do a little bit every day and eventually, you'll get to the whole thing.

How about some specifics?

The assignment that I give out now to new students is the following:

1)  Decide on 3 activities that you generally do every day during which you will think about improving your posture.

2)  At first, at least, only concern yourself with remembering during those 3 activities.

3)  If you have trouble remembering, choose activities which lend themselves to displaying a reminder.  Post-its are helpful for this.  Jessica at Refinery29 placed a post-it on her computer.  One of my students recently chose "washing dishes" and "brushing teeth" since it would be easy to put up a post-it.

4) Keep a very short journal if you'd like to track what you notice and your progress.  Only use a journal if it's helpful and doesn't become a hindrance to doing the exercise.

If you limit yourself to deciding to pay attention to your posture during these three activities, you may just find that you are naturally more conscious during other activities because you've made a point to practice.

TIP for using your phone:  Here's one reminder that could make a huge difference:  Put a note to yourself on the screensaver of your phone so that you are reminded every time you use it. (That's a lot of time, right?)  You could just put up the words, "Think Posture" or a photo of something that will help you to remember.  

Feel free to use my post-it photo up top.  If your kid, significant other, or best friend hold that spot on your screen saver, how about taking a photo of them holding a "Think Posture" sign?  

Texting and Exercise - How They're Related

 June '15, Boston, MA - Imogen Ragone, Alexander Technique teacher from Wilmington, DE imogenragone.com

June '15, Boston, MA - Imogen Ragone, Alexander Technique teacher from Wilmington, DE imogenragone.com

Texting and Exercise...Emailing all day and then lifting weights...Huddling over your phone and then going for a run.  How are these all connected?  

The Phone:

In the image to the right, the woman texting is holding herself in a balanced, relaxed way.  She has excellent posture without being stiff.  She's sitting, holding, and looking at her phone in a manner that is balanced and efficient.  She's not sinking toward the phone nor is she lifting her shoulders to bring it nearer to her eyes.  

Notice how you hold your phone.  Can you tip your chin gently toward your chest and let your head rotate forward rather than poking your chin out and letting your head drop?  Also, try lifting your phone more with your hand than with your shoulder (ie don't lift your shoulder to raise your phone.)

How about putting a reminder photo or message to yourself on your screen saver or wall paper to cue yourself to be conscious of how you're holding your body while using your phone?

 Oona Short, writer and Alexander Technique student, with Lindsay Newiter during a lesson.

Oona Short, writer and Alexander Technique student, with Lindsay Newiter during a lesson.

Lifting Weights:

If you spend a lot of your day sticking your chin out with your head bend down looking at your phone, you'll be fueling and reinforcing habits that can cause a lot of compression in your spine.  Your head probably weighs about 10-12 pounds, so if you are doing this, it's like pressing a bowling ball down on your spine all day and this sort of habit affects the whole body down to the legs and feet.  

So, if you are reinforcing a downward pressure of the head into the neck, which then pushes the upper back down into the lower back, you are very likely doing the same thing if you lift weights, adding even more downward pressure in this more demanding activity.  

If you practice lifting your phone without dropping your head down and without hiking your shoulder up, you'll be preparing for your workout all day.  Seems that you might get more out of it and be less likely to injure yourself.

The woman in the photo above is lifting weights without overusing her neck or lifting her shoulders.  Her torso remains steady, but not stiff as she lifts.

Walking and Running:

If you are compressed from the top down from your texing habits, you'll likely be using a lot of extra effort to move forward.  You may be pushing your chin forward and lifting your shoulders or chest.  When we walk and run efficiently, the upper body aims upward, freeing up to top of the head (instead of pressing down) to allow the power to move to come from your hips and glutes.  If you are pressed down, you prevent the hips and glutes from engaging properly.  This is the case with both walking and running.

 Master the Art of Running workshop in Limerick, Ireland.  August '15

Master the Art of Running workshop in Limerick, Ireland.  August '15

In the photo to the right, notice that the woman in front isn't sticking out her chin or chest or tightening her neck in order to move forward.  Her upper body stays balanced and upright, but not stiff.  Her legs stay under her and  she doesn't  do what's called "over-striding".  When we over-stride, we are out of balance and have to compensate for pressure  that we are sending back and down.  Try poking your chin forward and lifting your chest when standing.  You'll probably find that you lean back.  Over-striding, when walking or running, means that we reach ahead with the feet, often to compensate for the upper body leaning back.

If you just let your head tip forward and your chin to gently move toward your chest when you use your phone when you are standing, you can avoid leaning back.

Start your warm-up while you text!  Put that reminder on your screen saver!  Let me know how you do in the comments below.  

I'll be offering a workshop called "Mind Your Gadgets" twice in October (on the 15th and 22nd).  Click here to find out more and to sign up.

Contact me to find out about my Alexander Technique running lessons that I offer and how I can help you improve any type of work-out by helping you to change your postural habits.

This Isn't A Violin

 Melissa tong - melissatong.com

Melissa tong - melissatong.com

When you pick up a cup of coffee or a bottle of water, do you immediately tighten your upper arm and shoulder?  Do you tighten them before you’ve even touched the object that you’re picking up?  How about picking up a heavy backpack or a musical instrument?   

A little trick that I’ve been using myself and suggesting to my students to help avoid strain and compression when picking up and holding objects is to first tell themselves that the object isn’t what it is.  This may sound like an idea for a surrealist paining, but think of it as a way of suspending judgement and expectation, allowing for something new to happen.

An good example of this game came up in a lesson recently with my student, Melissa Tong.  Melissa (pictured here) is a professional violinist who has been playing since childhood.  She began taking Alexander Technique lessons with me because of chronic pain in her bow arm.  We quickly learned that the root of the problem began when she lifted the violin up to her shoulder.  She would twist to one side and press her opposite shoulder down.   Long story short, resolving the problem in the arm was dependent on changing what was going on in the shoulder and the back.  She made progress in leaps and bounds after just a few weeks and we began looking at the issue of lifting the violin as beginning at the moment her hands first touched it to lift it out of its case.  The years of playing had given the instrument a certain high-stakes “weight” that in subtle ways, contributed to how she would react it, so I encouraged her as best she could to tell herself that this wasn’t necessarily a violin in the case.  She could approach it with a fresh perspective and learn something new about it and herself each time she picked it up. 

When we decide not to know, we give ourselves the opportunity to learn and sense in ways that we may not have expected.  We give ourselves permission to learn about and change habits in regards to things in our lives that we tend not to question.

Here’s a little game you can play with the objects around your home to help you to suspend your habitual reactions to picking them up and avoid using too much effort where you don't need it.   A small book or a cup are good objects to start with.

  • Pick up the object without really thinking about it. 
  • Close your eyes and pick up the object again.
  • Go back and forth a few times, picking it up with the eyes open and closed and notice if you feel a difference.  (Usually there is less effort in the upper arm and shoulder when the eyes are closed)
  • Now that you’ve had these contrasting experiences, see if you can pick up the object with less effort with your eyes open.

In this exercise there is an element of suspending what you know about what you are picking up.  In the example of lifting an object, closing your eyes forces you to sense the object more keenly with your hand and then to respond to the weight of the object as you feel it in your hand.  All that is needed is to move the fingers and thumb together to grasp it, rather than tensing the bicep and shoulder in preparation of picking it up.  The rest of the body will respond to the weight of the object, but that will happen automatically and without strain (if you get out of our own way).  For example, in addition to focusing on grasping the object with your hand, avoiding tightening the upper arm and shoulder, also make sure you don't tip backward by letting your lower back cave in to the weight.  Instead, allow the weight of the object to become part of your weight. 

Pretend you don’t know!  Practice sensing the things around you with a fresh perspective and see what you learn and if you are able to get rid of some of that pesky shoulder tension!  Leave a comment below and share what you practiced lifting and what you observed.

Also, visit melissatong.com if to check out when Melissa's next gig is!

You Have No Back, but You do Have a Spine

Imagine the following conversation...

Ionesco-affiche

A:  What's wrong?

B:  My back hurts.

A:  Your back of what?

B:  The back of my hand.  What going on with you?  You don't look so well.

A:  My back's been bothering me.

B:  Back of what?

A:  The back of my leg.  Last week it was my back and now it's my back.

B:  So the same, both weeks?

A:  No, the back of my arm last week and now the back of my leg.

B:  Oh, sorry about that.  I hope your back feels better.

A:  I hope yours does too.  Hey, I know a good back doctor if you want a referral.

B:  Back of what doctor?

A:  Back of knee...I went to him last year when I had that soccer injury.  I guess that won't do you any good though.

B:  Thanks anyway.  See ya.

A:  See ya.

Do you feel like you just read a page of absurdist drama?  If so, then consider something that you may take for granted...your back.  Back of what?  Back of your TORSO.  To consider what is popularly called "the back" a separate body part may well be just as absurd as isolating the back of your hand as "the back".  

The way we think about our bodies influences how we use them.  If we think of the back and front of the torso as two separate planes, then it becomes difficult to coordinate ourselves in an integrated way and we become more prone to compression, leading to strain and injury.  

The back is the back of the front the front is the front of the back...and there are sides too!  Start in the front and touch your  ribs.  follow them around your torso and you'll find that they attach at your spine.  This may look obvious on an anatomical drawing, but most people have so little awareness of the backs of their torsos, that they for get there are ribs there.  The rib cage is three dimensional.  Put your hands around your sides and take note.  Notice movement of the rib cage as you breathe.  Ideally it should expand and contract with each breath like bellows.  

Lower down, we hear lots about lower back pain caused by hyper-extension of the lower back.  There's also a lot of concern about bellies sticking out.  The belly and the lower back are the front and back of one another.  If the lower back is arched, the belly will stick out and vice versa.

And as for the spine, your spine isn't just those bumpy bones that you can reach back and feel.  It's quite deep and you might want to consider the front of your spine lengthening as well as the back of it.

As  always, to free the torso, first think about releasing excess tension in your neck, particularly the big muscles in the back of the neck and think of the very  top of your head aiming up toward the ceiling.  Relieving pressure below must first start with releasing downward pressure from above.  That means, to free your torso, you must first make sure that your neck and head aren't pressing down into it...and then let your torso lengthen and widen three dimensionally. 

Let's get rid of this idea of "the back".  Notice how you feel when you sense all sides of your torso and share your experience in the comments below.