Sunday, January 20, 2008

Discovering Yet Another Technique I Need to Learn

Not a swimming technique but rather a method of teaching proper posture and movement, the Alexander Technique has been around for over a hundred years. Named after the technique’s innovator F. Mathias Alexander, who developed it from purely empirical observations of his own body and his own problems, the technique is aimed at allowing an individual to recognize and change habits which interfere with well integrated skeletal and muscular functioning. It was Alexander’s belief the daily stress and repetition inherent in modern daily life causes the body to compensate in ways which create still further problems. Eventually the body begins to work against itself, pitting muscle group against muscle group, until free flowing and efficient movement becomes in varying degrees impaired or, under certain conditions, impossible. It’s a difficult concept to grasp but you can try this simple posture to gain a better understanding of the problem. First attempt to stand on one leg with both your arms held outstretched from your sides for fifteen seconds. Most readers of this blog should be able to do this – it’s a basic test for inadequate musculature given to senior citizens. It might take two or three tries but no real problem right? Now try to do the same posture but with eyes closed. I’m betting 99% of my readers won’t be able to stand more than a couple of seconds, much less the full fifteen. Welcome to the teeming masses. The reason why we fail is our dependency on visual inputs to provide the constant stream of corrections we need to remain standing. Without them our non symmetrical and conflicting muscles overwhelm our sense of balance and we fall out of the posture.

If you’re an athlete this clearly isn’t a good thing, but for many these problems can develop into actual physical deformity. Alas this has been the result for me. I exhibit an observable curve in my lower back, a significantly higher left shoulder than my right, a backward canted head, and hips which for all intents and purposes could be considered completely fused. For the morbidly inclined you can view my pictures from November here. When I started rehabilitation only the need to eliminate my back pain preceded the desire to correct my crookedness. Yet despite three years of extensive physiotherapy, chiropractics, yoga, stretching, some weight lifting, and two years swimming I’ve seen no apparent change in my posture. I’ve lost weight, gained muscle, and now enjoy better overall conditioning; but still no improvement in the way I hold my back. So late November I finally decided to go ahead and see if Alexander Technique could solve my problems.

Now Alexander Technique works by providing the body with new references for holding itself rather than continuing along the well trodden path established by the harmful habits and demands of everyday life: and it relies heavily upon a teacher’s efforts to guide the student through touch and words. Sometimes knowing I’m in the proper position is easy – because I feel a definite floating sensation as muscles which have been working for years finally get a few seconds of relaxation. Then there's the times she's effusive in her praise when I hadn't realized I'd even moved. And at still other moments the position I’ve been guided into requires considerable concentration and effort. The process is unlike any other physiotherapy I have known. Overall the training works on simple movement to begin with, such as sitting in a chair or walking up and down stairs, and progresses as the teacher determines he or she has seen enough progress to move on to other areas. I’ve spent much of the past two months limited to learning how to properly stand up and sit down but there have been lessons which were directly applicable to my swimming. In one lesson my teacher commented on the significant difference in the way I hold my shoulders and asked me to demonstrate how I use my arms and shoulders swimming freestyle. A couple of simulated strokes later she was apologizing for criticizing something she knew little about but then proceeded to explain why my stroke was all wrong from an Alexander viewpoint. Instead of initiating my stroke from the shoulder (i.e. starting my overhead recovery from my deltoids) and then by still more shoulder rotation propelling my arm reach forward she explained how my recovery stroke should only incidentally impact the shoulder. What she recommended to increase my stroke's efficiency was instead to allow my arms to follow my elbows up and then extend through the finger tips in an effortless manner rather than trying to muscle my arms from the shoulders. Does any of this sound familiar? We never did get to discuss the reasons for my shoulder differences but at that point I didn’t care, so pleased was I that the Alexander Technique could correctly point out defects in my stroke.

Even better, and to my agreeable surprise as I had little real expectations from these lessons, I believe I can see improvements in my back and shoulders after only a couple months. I’m looking forward to the end of season in March when I’ll retake my pictures and actually can compare the changes over the past few months. I’m also sure my hip flexibility has significantly increased for another encouraging development. As a counter point, however, all these structural changes going on have affected the way I use many of my muscles - necessitating not only the retraining of several key muscle groups but also demanding further stroke changes. I can take solace, however, that all this seems to be leading eventually to a new and better foundation for my swimming. Things are looking up.


Isis said...

Fascinating--and something I knew nothing about. I hope you'll post more about this as time goes on. How difficult is it to retain these new habits and not retreat into the old ones?

Scott said...

I understand over time old habits will eventually cause a return to the same problems, but that any deterioration will be observable because of earlier training. As we can't correct ourselves additional Alexander lessons will be necessary throughout one's life. Part of the lessons, however, revolves around identifying those habits and routines which can cause problems and working to eliminate or at least limit their negative influences. On the other hand I find the lessons to be very meditative and enjoyable, so I'll have no problem going back every few years or so for a 'tune up'. Aldous Huxley, who was a great proponent of the Alexander Technique, actually traveled back to England from California for a series of lessons from FM Alexander himself when he felt the need.