Friday, November 21, 2008

Alexander and I

Several days ago I watched a girl three years old or so literally running circles around a mother who pushed a baby carriage ahead of her, the child scuffing up the fall leaves and waving arms about. Around and around she ran until, with a delighted cry, she spotted my dog and ran to him instead. Kaz, himself bounding towards this whirling dervish of energy to investigate, suddenly found himself stopped dead in his tracks cautiously wagging his tail, uncertain whether to greet the child or flee to safety.

So young, so much zeal. When I see scenes such as this my first thought is of George Bernard Shaw’s famous quote “youth is wasted on the young”, and then I always go to a memory of a quantum physics text illustrating the concept of particle randomness by showing the heavily used paths taken by adults surrounded by the aimless wanderings to and fro by children and pets. It never fails to bring a smile to my face watching real life play out textbook theory. Life may be complex with varied and conflicting goals but our common desire for physical health is straight forward. We all want to capture youth’s bountiful energy and keep it for as long as possible into our autumn years. The intelligent will put in the effort to maintain their fitness; the ignorant will take it for granted and will not. This past week the American Heart Association published the results of research on adolescent obesity where they found some obese teenagers tested had arteries with a ‘vascular age’ nearly three decades older than their chronological age. That’s not good. Another joint study by Princeton and the University of Munich last year found American males, after leading the world in height for two hundred years, are now shorter on average than every country in Western and Northern Europe. The Netherlands, with an average height of 187 cm. (6’1”) holds the title today, with Americans trailing well behind at 179 cm. (5’10”). A population’s height tells a lot about a country’s relative well being: the adequacy of their diet and overall health care. We Americans shrinking relative to the world? Not good at all.

I made the mistake of forgetting this truth about fitness for a few years and paid the price. Hopefully I don’t make the same mistake again. It’s taken me two years to return to full health and the effort necessary to do so comes as a shock to me. I still vividly remember as if it were yesterday only taking a couple of months to get into game shape as a teenager.

I can count three positives coming from of this experience. During my search to end my pain everything from acupuncture, chiropractics, heavy duty drugs, rolfing, massage and physical therapy, all the way up to contemplating surgery was tried. The first positive was getting back into the pool for overall fitness, something which never would have happened without the driving incentive of a crippled back for motivation. The second positive was discovering Bikram’s yoga, a rehabilitative form of Hatha yoga, for improving flexibility and core strength. And the third positive was my eventual experiment with Alexander Technique for my posture problems. I'd like here to write a little about Alexander Technique for those unfamiliar with it.

The premise of Alexander Technique is pretty simple. If we’re lucky enough not to be born with any abnormalities to begin with time will always ensure we'll accumulate enough of them to force change on our bodies anyways. Many of these adjustments, such as relying on adjacent muscles to relieve the stain on the damaged part, or by avoiding use altogether, are temporary but some last longer. Long enough to alter the habitual way our body holds itself upright. In time these compromised habits become more and more entrenched and, because the body begins to depend on muscles not originally intended for the role they're performing, they fatigue and force recruitment of other additional, even less related muscles. And so on and so on. Not just injuries. We’re talking here about damage and impairment caused from repetition injuries and neglect as well. From the child who plays too many video games to a stock trader who spends his day looking up at trading boards we have almost infinite ways to harm ourselves carrying out routine and mundane activities. No wonder almost everyone ends up with more than a few muscles working at cross-purposes, showing up in both posture and the way we move. It’s bad enough for the average person, but for an athlete it can spell disaster. A case in point is Jodie Henry, a former world record holder and multiple Olympic gold medalist from Athens, who had to withdraw from the Australian 2008 Olympic Trials and consequently from the Beijing Olympics because of a late diagnosed imbalance in her pelvic muscles. That should never happen with the medical supervision she should be receiving. I’m convinced if she or her coach had known about Alexander Technique it wouldn’t have.

The process which the Alexander Technique uses to teach the necessary corrections, however, is somewhat unorthodox. It is grounded in very simple activities: you work with movements like getting in and out of a chair, walking, and bending down; you look at how you breathe and speak. The teacher observes your habits of posture and movement primarily through touch by gently placing his or her hands on the neck, shoulders, back, and so on while asking the student to perform a prescribed movement – and then uses those same hands to guide the student into a position which encourages the release of unnecessary muscular tension¹. You can definitely tell when long established bad habits are broken: there’s a strong sense of ‘floating’ as tired, overworked muscles finally get to rest. For many years other than the belief improvements in posture, performance² and the reduction of pain was real there’s been little to support the Technique’s claims beyond anecdotal evidence. Finally a major scientific study just published this past August in the British Medical Journal Randomised Controlled Trial of Alexander Technique Lessons, Exercise, and Massage (ATEAM) for Chronic and Recurrent Back Pain concludes Alexander lessons can be as effective for controlling long term back pain as regular long term exercise. I'm sure given enough time and money science will eventually come to understand what F.M. Alexander intuitively knew must be true.

Personally most of my own problems can be traced back to a collapsed rugby scrum at twenty six. I didn’t realize how much my back was still out of kilter until I saw the pictures taken at the start of this adventure. If there was definite disappointment with my physical improvement after a year’s effort I was flat out distressed there hadn’t been one iota of progress on the posture front. A desperate willingness to do anything led me to try some Alexander Technique lessons. The first exhibit of their effectiveness: my before and after pictures below coming after one year of lessons. I think they show a marked improvement.

In my 'before' picture the left side is considerably lower than the right, which in turn is severely compressed against my body; and if you look closely, you can see my head is tilted back with my chin out. After one year the left and right shoulders have leveled out considerably, the right shoulder has decompressed slightly, and my neck is now held so that the weight of my head sits directly over the spine without my chin jutting out.

Interestingly I believe the impact these lessons have had on my swimming performance actually confirms the validity of the technique’s underlying premises. My teacher Gaby often talks against “end gaining”, meaning not trying to address the most visible problems in a direct manner. I see a droopy shoulder and crooked back and naturally that’s what I want to correct. By the time I started lessons, however, the actual problems causing my skewed body were buried under several compensating layers which needed correction before we could address the source problems. The therapy succeeds as the problems are 'unwound' starting from the most recent and working back towards the original injury. For me progress has come in stages: three times I’ve made significant breakthroughs and each time I’ve had to retrain newly reintegrated but feeble core, hip and leg muscles which set back my training plans. The good part is I'm continuing to make real progress and the changes definitely will make for faster swimming in the future. The bad part is my latest picture shows I still have some way to go before my back is 100% rehabilitated – and that means ...

¹ There may be some who will ask the question if the student has to disrobe as with massage therapy. For the shy the answer will come as a relief – students are taught fully clothed.
² The technique is popular with professions such as musicians, dancers, and singers in dealing with the particular problems overuse brings to their performances.


Anonymous said...

Very nice post! The Technique helped me quite a bit with swimming, and walking - both of which I had been doing with a lot of unnecessary strain.

They have a great site at where you can learn more about it.

Anonymous said...

Hi! I am kind of slow on the technical side of the 'net, blogs and such...I just found your link on Rob's site today and followed it!

Great site -- very in-depth on topics. I've added your link to my site.

Is Alexander's a branch of functional training? It sounds like it from the description...Rebecca (swim evangelist)

Scott said...

Well thank you for the compliment. Is Alexander's a branch of functional training? No it's not, it is actually its mirror opposite - though it achieves many of the same results. F.M. Alexander developed the technique from self-experimentation when he set about successfully to discover why as an actor he was constantly losing his voice on stage. Eventually he came to the conclusion his problems stemmed from over working certain muscles that were observable as poor posture habits. His technique works on correcting the underlying impairments causing the focal problem, whereas functional training seeks to rehabilitate the actual muscles in question. The quoted study is an excellent exhibit of the two contrasting approaches: where the effects of Alexander Technique lessons are compared with long term physical exercise (i.e. functional training) and found to have the same end results. On the other hand, because Alexander Technique actually corrects the source of the problem rather than just compensate for it you also end up with better posture (in my case a straighter back and more level shoulders).

I have to admit discovering I could sit down and study how to better my posture (quite literally) and achieve better results than actual physical rehabilitation is still rather magical to me – but this recent research shows it is very much a fact well on its way to being proven. Personally I need no further evidence beyond my own results. I’m positively delighted with it. I wrote the post because there are many more people out there who could benefit immeasurably from the technique. Hopefully it will become more wide spread as its benefits become known. I wrote an earlier post here you might find interesting. It has a test you can perform to demonstrate the problems the technique deals with which is amusing to try.