The secrets of good Posture and Poise
Many people think that the Alexander Technique is simply advice and exercises to correct posture. This is actually very far from the truth.
What is true is that it is probably the best way to improve your posture, or more correctly, your poise. However, this improvement is actually the automatic and natural by-product of its main aims: to reduce tension and return you to your natural state of health and vitality.
Poor posture is the result of stress and background tension. It is no use trying to correct it without removing that tension, as those sorts of corrections will only cause more tension and distortion. As we have seen, the idea of trying to correct posture or movement without removing background tension, can be illustrated by four fingers:
Your little finger represents the lightness and delicateness of your natural poise and coordination. If nothing is getting in its way, this coordination can align and move your body lightly and easily. In terms of posture, this means you rise up effortlessly and your body aligns itself perfectly without you needing to think about it.
Your second or ring finger, stiffened and laid on top of your little finger, represents background tension. As you now move your little finger around it has to drag your larger, stiff second finger around with it and it cannot move so freely or easily. In terms of posture, it means your tension pulls you down and out of alignment and you cannot stand as straight.
You now use your middle finger to push the second finger around and this represents the extra effort you have to put in on top of the tension to get the same amount of movement of your little finger. Unfortunately the resulting movement is never as smooth or well coordinated as your little finger (natural poise and coordination) would be able to produce on its own. In terms of posture this means that although you can stand up in a way that seems straight, you are actually not well aligned and you are putting in a lot of effort to do something that should be easy. This causes excess work for muscles and excess pressure on bones and joints. In practical terms, we tend to alternate between putting in a lot of effort, but not being well aligned, and then collapsing.
This is the point where we are tempted into trying to correct our posture. But this is like using the fourth finger to drive the third one. It is trying to correct for the distortions caused when the third finger tries to overcome the tension of the second one. The only way to improve the quality of movement in this way is by using even more effort!
Worse still, the traditional forms of postural correction are based on artificial ideas of how our bodies should be aligned. “Head up, chin in, shoulders back, chest out, tummy in.” are actually caricatures of good poise, not the real thing.
This sort of posture is also never light, easy or natural. It takes constant effort and attention to maintain and causes even more tension than just “putting in an effort”. In fact, the command in the armed forces to stand to attention could just as easily be interpreted as At-Tension.
In fact, Alexander himself claimed that only a person who can already stand properly or well, naturally, can stand well at all. In other words unless you can do it naturally, almost without thinking about it, all efforts to stand well will result in excess effort and distortion.
The Alexander Technique achieves good posture, natural healthy poise and good coordination by removing the background tension and by bypassing the habits that cause it. We have to put aside our desire to attain good posture directly and take the indirect route of removing whatever was distorting us.
The process of loosening has to be done gradually and carefully. We have got used to our tension, it has become our security blanket. Until we have learned to recognise when we are physically safe, we will tend to tense up as soon as we think something is threatening, even if it is just a utility bill. And until we realise that most of what we need to do requires very little physical effort, we will tend to tighten ourselves whenever we feel required to do something, even if it is just to tap some keys on a keyboard.
Almost everything within an Alexander lesson is geared either directly towards getting you to relax and loosen, or to not reactively stiffening when something is required of you.
As you start to release, you may well be surprised at how you realign and you will probably be more surprised at how little effort it takes to stand up or walk or do simple tasks. To start with you may find that this only lasts during the lesson or a little after, but after a while you will notice you are naturally maintaining greater looseness and better natural poise and coordination throughout your life.
You do have to think some things occasionally, but they are not the usual bits of postural advice. They are about noticing you are safe, thinking of being calm and relaxed and of various parts of you releasing or remaining released. You do not have to concentrate or constantly remember these thoughts, these are only occasional gentle thoughts once you have got the idea of it.
Also you do not have to do any exercises to maintain these conditions. I do recommend you lie on the floor for five or so minutes, once or twice a day, just to let your body release out and realign more easily.
Looseness allows ‘Up’
So once you have been able to let go of background tension and you have managed to avoid it jumping back in when it is not required, then your body will naturally realign itself.
As we are two legged beings, our heads and eyes are about three times as high off the ground than they would be if we were on four legs. Mathematically it means we can see about nine times the area than we would be able to see if we were on four legs. (The increase in scanned area is approximately the square of the increase in height. 2 times height = 2 x 4 = 4 times the area. 3 times the height means we can see 3 x 3 = 9 times the area.) This means that our heads have an inbuilt desire to rise!
This desire to rise gets translated into a feeling that our heads want to rise up… Just so long as we do not have any background tension pulling us down! So when your body is loose and relaxed, it will feel as if your head wants to float, a bit like a buoy on the rising tide. In your natural state, it will even start to feel as if it is lifting the rest of your body… and as it does so, each part of your body will align itself and lengthen itself as your head goes upwards. So rather than having to make any effort, it feels as if your head is lifting you and lengthening you.
Of course, we know from physics, that you head is not actually lifting you, it is just the inbuilt desire making it want to go up. But this desire sets off a series of reflexes, that gets the very powerful muscles of your neck and back to align your spine for optimum length with the minimum of required effort. So long as there is no tension pulling you down, these muscles effortlessly project your head upwards and in perfect balance to the optimum height, with your head balanced lightly on top. This is true poise.
Again, when you have let go of background tension, your shoulders will find their natural resting place. This is not pulled back. Most people have excess chest tension, which makes them slouch a bit, and pulling ones shoulders back under these circumstances seems to make us look a bit better, but it requires excess effort and is unnatural. By the time you have let your chest release, it will have naturally lengthened, and even though your shoulders will naturally settle a little forward from the sides of your body, due to looseness and gravity, they will still look as if they are further back than they would have been if you were slumping or your chest was tight. The point is to stay loose and be natural.
Similarly, your legs, knees and pelvis will align themselves naturally. Most people think they are standing straight, when in fact their pelvis is a long way forward in relationship to their feet and head. In this position, their knees are locked and their legs are quite tense. Once you relax and you let your head rise, as if it is lifting the rest of you, your pelvis will automatically adjust itself to come in line between your head and your feet, and your knees will unlock. In the early stages, people need some help with this: It feels as if their back side is sticking out (it isn’t really, it is just natural) and their knees feel unsteady at first. After a while though, instead of you locking yourself to achieve stability, you start to sense a looseness in your leg/pelvis joints and you find that you knees are gently and continually adjusting to keep you in an easy kind of dynamic balance.
All of this then makes it far easier for you once you start to move: It is as if your head simply wants to go to where you want to be and as if it is floating up and forward, drawing your body underneath, as if effortlessly. Stairs and hills are So much easier this way! Likewise, sitting down and standing up become a doddle, compared to what many of us have been used to.
Furthermore, all this lightness and ease of movement greatly reduces the wear and tear on your body. Your muscle have far less work to do, your bones and joints suffer far less pressure and wear, and all this reduces the demands on your body’s organs and systems.
So overall, by letting go of background tension, even while you are active, it allows your head to rise, your body to align itself healthily and naturally. It allows your movement to be easier and therefore for your performance to improve and it reduces wear and tear on your body and reduces the load on your systems and on your health. All very significant advantages.
In my opinion, the Alexander Technique is the Rolls Royce of postural improvement and natural poise, even without trying to be!