New list of bad habits & strategies for releasing tension

Well it’s been ages since I wrote a post so I’m going to marshal my thoughts and make some notes… this is just a brain dump for now.

I haven’t had any lessons for a few months now, have been thinking about another one but never really got round to it. I’d love to do a long course having a couple of lessons a week, but just couldn’t afford it at the moment… I read that you might be able to get it on the NHS if the doctor refers you, but I don’t think there are any NHS-registered teachers in my area – boo.

List of bad habits

First, an updated list of bad habits (or muscular “sets”) I’ve noticed that I do, so far – the list tends to grow as I notice new things, and interestingly have only noticed some of the oldest habits recently.

  1. Pull my head down. I only noticed this recently, but when I noticed it, it instantly took me back to when I was very young (and very shy) and literally tried to “keep my head down” and so not be noticed.
  2. Tense my shoulders, I think this is related to the first one – a general fear reflex.
  3. Pull my shoulders back, which involves the big muscles down the side of the back. This was an attempt to avoid the slump forward, which was probably caused by over-use of the computer and hence shortened pectorals.
  4. Try to “stand up tall”, which involved arching my back, which ironically makes you shorter.
  5. Tense the muscles at the bottom of my back. This came from when I went to see a physio years ago and she told me I needed to strengthen those muscles to improve my posture. After tensing them throughout the week to try and build the muscles, she looked and said “good” at the next session, and this stuck.
  6. A set of related “sets” from a while ago when I tried to obtain a good posture, I think I came up with this while running – when you’re in motion you can immediately notice the effect on your movement, and I think at the time it did some good. However, I now think it was the release after I did these things that was actually the thing that helped me improve my posture.
    • Tense my neck
    • Tense my chest to puff it out
    • Tense the shoulders to make them big and wide
    • Lift my chest (I have a couple of different “sets” which do this – the one I discovered while running and another one I developed later while trying to imitate that)..
    • Drop my ribcage down to activate the deep abdominal muscles
  7. Sucking in the stomach in an attempt to look thinner (this involves two different “sets” which used different muscles)
  8. Push my hips forward, tense my buttocks and lock my knees back, an attempt at forcing a good posture by “posing” from years ago
  9. Tense my hamstrings – no idea where this comes from, nothing voluntary I can think of, but maybe I’ve just forgotten.

I’m pretty sure most of these habits interfere with most of the things I do – it’s a wonder I can get anything done at all๐Ÿ˜€ and quite a tall order to “not do” them all at once and do something at the same time๐Ÿ™‚ Still, small steps will lead you there in the end…

Strategies for release

Some new approaches and things I’ve noticed again are important:

  1. Before any attempt at “doing” the technique, an important first step is to be “not afraid”. Don’t “try” to do it in a way that needs a result, just see what happens. Relax and be inquisitive.
  2. Be in the moment. My natural tendency (and maybe everyone’s) is to try to “do” the technique and drift off, doing it automatically. It’s better not to bother than doing this, or you just reinforce the bad habits and make them harder to separate from the actual releasing of tension.
  3. Projecting directions of each vertebra “wobbling” freely and sending pulses outwards, then pulsing and releasing up to the next vertebra seems to work nicely. However it seems to work better not to try and link this to any particular location in my body. Just find the bottom of the spine, and then start doing it, one vertebra at a time, then up to the next one. Forget that it’s somewhere in the body and just relax as you do it, inquisitively and without fear.
  4. I’ve thought before that you could avoid repetetive mind chatter by stopping the associated muscular tensions. I also think it can help when you’re lying semi-supine (and otherwise) to try and stop the mind chatter – approaching from a different angle I guess.

Olympic Weightlifting

I took up Olympic-style weightlifting as a hobby about 3 months ago, as it seemed like a good way to get fit and practise the Alexander Technique. This went really well for the first 2 months, then one day I thought I’d practise my lifting technique with light weights without warming up… and hurt my back. Had a physio appointment a couple of days ago and another next week… doesn’t sound like I’ve done anything too serious๐Ÿ™‚

Overall

I think lying down semi-supine each day has great benefits if you can remain in the moment and do it. I’m redisovering an ability to free my neck which I had before and lost… I think I got into a habit of lying down and just “doing it” which ended up developing into a habit of pushing my head down to try and acheive the same feeling as what a genuine release would do (bad).

And finally

Anyone interested in the Alexander Technique, who hasn’t already done so, should make sure they check out http://alexandertechnique.com/. I’ve used this site loads over the years and it has a great selection of links and resources… The site owner asked me today if he could add a link to this blog, which I’m very pleased about – if my experiences help more people along their own personal path then I’ll be very happy!

Until the next post

Pete

Back to the technique

Well it’s been ages since I last wrote a post… for the last 3 months I’ve been refitting my bathroom, and would never have believed how time consuming tiling the entire room would be – so that’s why people just tile a bit around the bath – you live and learn๐Ÿ™‚

For the first couple of months I was doing that 40+ hours a week, plus full time work, so didn’t really have any time for the technique. Initially I noticed a few bad habits such as really tensing my hamstrings while bending down, and seemed to be able to reduce that once I’d noticed it.

After a couple of months I had a week’s holiday in the sun and then went back to lying semi-supine for a n hour every day for a couple of weeks, and really noticed I could release a lot of tension. If you haven’t done it for a while it seems to be easier to release that way… it also goes to show how tension builds up unconsciously even if you’re aware that you might be doing it.

Might have another lesson soon, I found in the last lessson I had having the teacher point out at the point when you start doing something wrong was really useful, I guess that’s the benefit of the teacher…

Anyway, will have a think and write another post soon. Going to work some more with the stuff on http://posturereleaseimagery.org, I’ve found over the last couple of days that the image of separate segments of the body to be quite helpful in getting higher quality movement…

Old habits & new habits

With doing some DIY I’ve noticed that when I crouch down balancing on my toes, I really tense my hamstrings, to the point that it’s painful to release them when I stand up. I think I’ve done this for a long time… the fact that I’ve noticed now is good.

This is very different to when I attentively squat down like they do in Asia, which is much more comfortable and relaxed, although I don’t have the range of motion any more to comfortably squat flat-footed on the floor.

Thinking back I used to do a lot of things that I’m bringing under control with the help of the Alexander Technique – habits I picked up trying to get the neck & shoulders comfortable, with each new thing I tried adding to the discomfort… an interesting point is that, although I couldn’t tell I was still doing any of these things (e.g. sucking in my stomach), when I tried to specifically stop (e.g. I refused to suck in my stomach) it made a difference and felt like I was making less effort than normal.

Interesting, if I’d lost my memory and couldn’t remember having done that in the past it would never have occurred to me to stop doing it… the muscle tone has a memory of habits I’ve consciously forgotten. I suppose that’s good or getting out of bed would take all day…

My habit list – the ones which spring to mind anyway

The list of these things I had been doing, and the reasons why, is interesting to note. These postural “sets” are involved in my every movement, and if I can add refusing to do these to my primary directions (neck, head, back etc) it results in higher quality movement:

  • A while ago I found I could improve my posture (in a really bad way I now realise) by tensing a lot of my muscles, which ‘forces’ the body into a pose which looks, on the surface at least, better than the slump I used to go around in. This is like what bodybuilders do to strike a pose. This involved several separate sets:
    • Tense the neck (have to laugh at this now, that I did it intentionally :D)
    • Tense the chest
    • Tense the lower back
    • Tense and suck in the stomach
    • Tense the shoulders
  • Sucking in the stomach, in a slightly different way to the one above – can’t explain it but it used different muscles. This was for a different reason (so I didn’t look as fat back when I was a bit overweight). Now I know this is self-defeating, you’ll never hold it in and then when the voluntary muscles which weren’t designed for this get tired and collapse, even the thinnest person will look like they’ve got a beer gut if they try this approach…
  • Arching my lower back to try and ‘stand up tall’.

Semi Supine

Haven’t had any time to lie semi-supine over the last few days, might get 15 mins in before bed now. I was noticing some interesting things doing it a few days ago, particularly being able to feel some things I was doing very high up the neck, and being able to release this tension easily every time I noticed it throughout the day (often – I must be tensing it all the time – great if I can reduce the general level of tension in my neck).

How the technique works

I think you give directions, which result in some muscular release, but eventually from going through the direct -> release -> unconsiouscly-tense cycle over & over & over again you reach a point where you can kinesthetically sense and predict the tensing, which is the point where you can actually stop it and cause a release “manually” i.e. with direct control rather than giving directions. Thus, the Alexander Technique improves the kinesthetic sense. I’ve thought before that this is the very essence of it…

Although releasing it while ‘doing’ something else still isn’t direct and straightforward…

And I should add that I’ve realised what the technique ‘is’ a hundred different times… but I think every one tells you something fascinating about the human organism and the use of the self… interesting times.

Opportunity for practise

Unable to get a plumber/builder (thankfully got a plasterer) so I’m going to refurbish my bathroom myself, including removing the electric shower and a partition wall, plumbing in a new mixer shower, moving a radiator, replacing the suite and all new tiling. Plenty of opportunity to practise consciously directed, high quality use of the self…

Plenty of opportunity but it’s hard not to end-gain when you’ve got a job to do, no bath, sink or toilet and you need to get them back up and running๐Ÿ™‚

How do you do nothing?

Breathing

Inhibition is not doing anything, but I have to breathe, which is keeping me ‘doing’. I’m sure I’m doing lots of unnecessary stuff when I breathe, I have to get out the way of my body and let the reflex take over.

End Gaining

I used to have more success with this than I do now – which probably means I’m end-gaining to try and do it the way I used to – this is a pattern that’s happened with several things…

It’s tough not to end-gain because even when you’re not end-gaining you’re still working towards the end, just not by such a direct route… almost like you’re fooling yourself and doing it without you noticing.

DIY

Did some plumbing today, whenever I stand up after crouching down I’m getting a pain in my right hamstring – in fact I get this to a lesser extent when sitting normally. I think I’m really clenching my hamstrings when I crouch right down.

Got a bit of an improvement in my use when bending, by thinking of the whole body (and keeping the neck free) but allowing the sit bones to ‘lead’ the downwards motion (pointing out like brake-lights/tail-lights).

Directions and a clear mind

I think about my posture, form and the way I’m using my self many times throughout the day, and try to do things better with varying degrees of success and attention.

Every so often, before doing an activity, I manage to completely stop myself and focus on the main directions I find work best for me:

  1. Neck free
  2. Head not moving back or down
  3. Spine lengthening
  4. Not arching the back
  5. Not pushing the hips forward
  6. Legs releasing away from the hips
  7. Shoulders releasing away from each other

Most of the time, however, I find that in the pause I’ve created in order to give the directions, my mind wanders off and I lose track of the original end. Then when I remember what I’m supposed to be doing I either “end gain” and go straight for it (with the habitual pattern of movement) or I just go through a cycle of:

  1. Become aware of an end
  2. Stop
  3. Give directions
  4. Mind wanders off
  5. Remember the end
  6. Go to 2.

Sometimes, when my mind doesn’t wander off, and I just give the directions many times and then make a fresh decision about what I’m going to do, at the very point where I shift my attention to making the decision, I can feel all the directions take effect – my neck frees and my spine lengthens. Then, keeping with the directions, I do what I had decided upon and make the movement in a new and unfamiliar way (a good way), and I also notice my mind is so clear – all the chatter has stopped.

I don’t seem to be able to do this on demand though, as I said most of the time when I try to give directions my attention wanders off and it just doesn’t work like this.

The things I’ve noticed about when it does work:

  • Although I’ve stopped myself and inhibited any immediate reaction to the best of my ability, I’m still fully aware of the end I want to gain – this musn’t get forgotten and sidelined by the process.
    • Reminds of a quote I read in the Edward Maisel book (I think) about not forgetting the aim: “doing something for no reason is a sign of insanity”๐Ÿ˜€ an adequate description of the cycle I mentioned above.
  • As I give the directions, I think of their effect right through the movement I’m going to make (while still not doing anything) – like making a plan for the movement. I think of the whole movement with the neck being free (direction 1) and then the whole thing again with the neck being free and the head moving forward and up (directions 1 & 2), then again with 1, 2 & 3 and so on until I have them all ‘running’.
    • This is very “3 dimensional” thinking
    • When it’s working properly I can feel something in the muscles as I give the directions, but I never focus on them, this is just something I’m aware of in the background. It’s like the muscles which the directions are intended to relax are releasing a little bit, in preparation to relax throughout the movement.
  • I’m not worried about whether I’m doing it right. Note: I think it might be good to remind myself about this as the first step every time.
  • I’m not thinking about the process, I’m just doing it.
  • I’ve done it both on the spur of the moment and when I’ve really set out to “do” the technique.
  • I’m not too focused on anything in particular.
  • My mind isn’t racing off thinking about other things – although as I said when I do manage it it really clears my mind – I’d like to be able to do it in order to stop my mind racing off.

For having tried to learn the Alexander Technique for over a year, I’ve probably actually only managed this really successfully a few times. I think I need a bit more discipline (without fear/tension/stiffening). I’m sure when I do it right, though, this is the Alexander Technique…

If only I could do it more often…๐Ÿ™‚

The man himself:

FM Alexander

What can I do to execute the inhibition-direction-decision-action procedure more successfully? Hints to self:

  • Be more confident and don’t care about the result. Any concern over whether I’m doing it right causes apprehension & tension which dooms me to failure. I really do care about doing it right, but the means whereby I shall do it right is to not care whether it is right. This is hard to do๐Ÿ™‚
  • Review my blog to pick out the important points I’ve noted.

Semi-Supine

When lying semi-supine don’t try to do anything, just lie there (thanks for the hint Dan). Reminds me of:

You do not need to leave your room.
Remain sitting at your table and listen.
Do not even listen, simply wait.
Do not even wait, be quite still and solitary.
The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked,
it has no choice,
it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.
– Franz Kafka

Repetitive mind chatter & habitual apprehension (3)

Conscious Guidance & Control

Read a chapter of Man’s Supreme Inheritance last night where Alexander touched upon the habit of apprehension in a bit more detail. As he points, when an animal is confronted with something new, its reaction is fear and it can’t function normally in such a situation.

The “supreme inheritance” of man is the ability to be confronted with a new (or indeed familiar) situation and apply “conscious guidance and control”. As he pointed out, though, many people react to new (and indeed familiar) situations with an unnecessary degree of apprehension (fear) when they are in fact in no physical danger.

Alexander thought this was key in civilized society where we are continually stimulated and presented with new situations, if we are not to stay in a constant state of nervous fear.

Key points of conscious guidance and control:

The ability to inhibit any immediate, subconscious reaction

I’d say you need to be aware of the exact physical things you’re doing in order to inhibit the reaction – any “fear” or “mind chatter” is always accompanied by increases in tension in particular muscles. If you can stop the muscular reaction, you stop the associated mental/emotional component which caused it – not always easy but it is something physical and concrete to work on.

Thanks to John for suggesting that I consider “mind chatter” as purely physical and watch out for little movements of the facial muscles e.g. around the eyes, flaring the nostrils. I’ve paid attention to this over the last few days and it “checks out” so far.

Note – the fear response / startle pattern has a particular set of muscular pulls – TODO find out more about this as knowing exactly what to watch out for will help.

The ability to reason out the best response to a situation

Alexander mainly talked about use of the physical mechanisms of the self in this regard, but from the above comments I would say it also applies to the mental attitude to a situation.

He gave some examples where “a person” (who my teacher thinks is Alexander himself, although he doesn’t say) was able, from observing other people and then reasoning out the best way to use the body, to pick up and ride a bike the first time he tried, including busy town cycling on the 2nd day, and to fence straight away after watching an exhibition tournament.

This is contrasted to the “subconsciously guided” approach to learning where you just start trying, and get better by trial and error.

Of course, to reason out the best course of action one needs to be calm. If your habitual response to a situation is one of apprehension, it will reduce your ability to reason. This is probably only a problem when confronting new situations, as in situations you know you’re going to confront, you can reason out the desired response when you are calm, before it happens (hint: if you can’t think about something calmly even when out of the situation, try audio self hypnosis e.g. I found these really helpful).

The ability to perform the reasoned response while continuing to inhibit the unwanted reactions

This comes back to the procedure Alexander developed, and which he described in Use of the Self in the chapter Evolution of a Technique.

I have to go now though, I will update notes on this over the next few days… I need to think more about how it applies to habitual apprehension and mind chatter in particular.

Live without any fear and with total peace of mind

Could this be the way to live without fear and with total peace of mind…? It sounds like an approach at least – and it isn’t the usual airy-fairy rubbish. I think this is a way of avoiding the fear habit rather than fear itself… will be interesting to see how it goes.

Working and exercise are bad for you

Exercise

Did some exercise two nights ago: 15 mins rowing, 15 mins on the cross trainer, then a steam room. Haven’t done any for about a 3-4 weeks due to Christmas, but it made me feel really tired and tense the next day, especially around the ribs. I think regular exercise makes you feel better, that definitely didn’t.

Work

I need a change of profession – not enjoying software development – I need a good break, but a complete change would be better. In many ways it could just be a habit of focusing on the things I don’t like about it – there are much worse jobs to do – but the physical side and the tedium is making me tense, which is exhausting by the end of the week, plus I end up watching the clock from about 11am (one habit I would definitely benefit from breaking).

Alexander talked about the habit of “mind-wandering” and the impossibility of forcing yourself to “concentrate” on something. I’m doing what he talked about when ‘trying’ to focus on my work e.g. furrowing the brow, bending over, which don’t help with the job at all. Alexander knew the solution – whole mind/body determination to complete the task. All I want to do when I’m there is stand up and walk out, though, his technique isn’t helping with that๐Ÿ˜€

Read an interview with some musicians about applying the Alexander Technique – they mentioned someone saying ideally you should give up playing for a year when learning the technique, and said it’s very difficult to have lessons at the same time as doing the thing that is messing you up. I can see this – the habits you indulge in all day, every day at work have quite a hold on you and are irresistible once you get caught up in work – it would be so much easier to establish good habits from a clean start.

Now I just need to arrange a year off work… it’s not outside the realm of possibility if I quit the permanent job and get some well paid contract jobs, although I’d have to move around.

Generally speaking…

I’m finding it impossible to reach the state of stillness which I used to be able to get from lying semi-supine, it can be a real chore trying, but I’ve got to do something to help the stiff neck and shoulders I’m getting from work.

I can’t stop the mind racing and make a connection with my body, over the last 2 days in particular. Having no success with any of the mental imagery or other stuff I’ve been trying. Boo hoo.