Sunday, 28 May 2017

On 20:40 by Victoria Stanham in ,    No comments

It’s a running joke with my life partner that whenever something ails him or me, physically or emotionally, I will invariably blame it on the weather or some other atmospheric and far removed factor.
It’s not so much that I’m trying to shirk off my share of responsibility for the current situation; it’s more a question of putting my troubles within the context of a wider whole, and acknowledging that everything influences everything else to some extent.
This puts power back in my hands rather than taking it away: I might be helpless about changing the particulars of my ailment, but I can sure fidget with my immediate environment or circumstances (turn up the heat, clean up the house, go for a walk, take a nap, etc.) to better accommodate myself to the current “atmospheric” conditions. Sometimes it’s by working on something seemingly far removed and un-connected to my current problem that the problem seems to sort itself out “magically”.
A similar thing happens with joint ailments.
Whenever a student comes with a shoulder issue for instance, I don’t care too much about the particulars of the injury (other than getting the basics on what the physio or doctor diagnosed as the trouble and asking the person to tell me what movements or actions increase the pain).
What I do care about is how every other part of the body is working in relation to that shoulder; for it is easy to assume that if a shoulder hurts then the problem is the shoulder and so the shoulder should be treated… But is this necessarily so?
The quick and short answer is: no, it’s not.
Moreover, sometimes the shoulder is so tender that it’s even better not to deal with the joint directly, or altogether, for that would only increase the irritation to the area and augment its already rampant hyperalgesia.
So I start by assessing movement in other joints, and how they relate to the great highway of movement-communication in the body: the spine.
You see, in the Alexander Technique, as in many other somatic movement modalities, we work from the perspective that the body is a whole (we also work from the perspective that the body and mind are a whole too… but let us leave that for another post).
Therefore, in our assessment of how a specific part of the body moves or doesn’t move, we take into consideration how all other parts move or don’t move and how that affects the part in question. In other words, all joints in the body (a joint is where two or more bones meet) are related, they all form one big “joint-family”, so if one joint has problems performing its functions (for whichever reason), all other joints will compensate in some way to keep the family going.
Take the spine for example.
There are 24+ vertebrae in your spine stacked one on top of the other in a long flexible and undulating column, hence there are 24+ joints in your spine alone. A healthy and coordinated spine can bend front, back, left, right and twist. Not all sections of the spine can move in all five directions to the same degree, but they all can move a bit in all directions.
When all inter-vertebral joints collaborate with the right amount of their available degrees of movement towards the accomplishment of any of the spine’s actions, the movement is perceived as elegant and harmonious, both by the person executing it as by those watching it.
On the other hand, when one or several inter-vertebral joints, for whichever reason, lose their ability to collaborate with their full range of mobility to the action of the spine, the slack has to be taken up by the other inter-vertebral joints (and all other joints in the body, of course). This means that some joints will move too little while others will move too much, and the end-result is a movement perceived as stiff and uncoordinated.
The problem is not an aesthetic one, for we can get used to the strangest of movement and postural fashions and habituate them even when they might at first jar with our sense of rhythm, harmony and flow.
The problem is that the more some joints compensate with hypermobility to the lack of mobility in some other joints, we eventually reach the point where no further adaptation is possible without harming ourselves in some way.
We are left with a bleak scenario: on the one hand we are stalled in our capacity to move any further in a given direction and might lose faith in our capacity for progress or improvement; on the other hand, if we press on regardless, trying to break through the (healthy) limit our body has set us, we might actually hurt ourselves, and most probably at those joints which had reached the limit of their compensatory abilities.
So, returning to our hurt-shoulder example, is the original problem in the shoulder? Probably not.
Does the shoulder need treatment? Yes, I am all in favor of seeing your physio to get treatment for the damaged tissues, so that they get a chance to heal correctly and as quickly as possible.
But, will the localized treatment cure you of your problem? And, was the shoulder the problem in the first case?
Most probably not. There is sure to be a coordination problem within the whole family of joints, of which your shoulder problem is only the visible tip of the iceberg.
I know this sounds terrible. How can you ever get all of your joints “correctly” coordinated and whoever has time for that anyway?
Fear not. Thankfully, coordination is not something we need to meddle with directly. Coordination is something our neuro-motor system does on its own with what is available to it in terms of sensory information (both from the outside and the inside), conceptual information (our subconscious beliefs about our own bodies and its movement possibilities) and the actual movement capacities of our various joints.
So, what we can do is feed our system more accurate sensory and conceptual information and restore whatever movement is still possible to all joints.

In doing so you might find, much like I find when I fidget with my environment and not with my problem directly, that by improving your use and the functioning of other parts of your body, your shoulder problem (or whichever joint is giving you trouble) “miraculously” disappears… and hopefully never returns.

Monday, 22 May 2017

On 10:24 by Victoria Stanham   No comments

I love to move; I derive endless pleasure and reams of personal insight from it. I practice several choreographed and un-choreographed forms of movement and am always avid to experiment with new forms.

It hasn’t always been this way for me, however.

Being an inveterate perfectionist, moving wasn’t always a source of childish delight and wide-eyed wonder at my seemingly endless movement possibilities. I used to (and still do if I’m not wide-awake to my habits) turn every activity and movement challenge into a competition, where the only ephemeral joy came from beating myself or others in “getting there” (all thoughts on the finish line and none on the journey). The prize for “getting there” (wherever that may be) was some cheap and short-lived admiration from peers and superiors; the price, on the other hand, was steep and long-lived.

No joy ever came from within after conquering one of these podiums; it was simply never good “enough”.

The fact that outside praise soon died away, and to get my fix once again I needed to surpass, or at minimum up-keep, my previous achievement level, seemed only to prove that I needed to do more and better (whatever that may be).

Still, no joy came from within, no praise came from within, and the constant struggle to do more and be better ended up corroding my belief in the truthfulness of outside praise and admiration. What I didn’t give myself, I couldn’t receive from others, even if it was showered upon me (which it never really was anyways).

Then, one good day, I was inadvertently presented with my first somatic movement practice. And little by little I got hooked on a completely different perspective on what it means to move and be moved.

Nowadays, whenever I “practice movement”, I am more interested in becoming aware of how I choose to move than in getting anywhere in particular.

Becoming aware of how I move throws light on my movement habits: how I always tend to unconsciously choose by default the same set of movement options, even when they are perhaps not the best suited to the present situation.

Therefore, in my personal movement investigations I present myself with simple movement challenges in a safe environment. I do so in order to teach myself how to move in and out of these challenges in different ways at any time, and thus widen the range of movement choices available to my conscious mind.

As I become aware of my growing number of movement options, movement habits loosen some of their vice grip on my actions: they become just one option among many from which I can consciously choose (if I’m aware enough to do so).

Movement has hence become a path of self-development. Nowadays, whenever I “exercise” (be it running, doing Pilates or any other sport or gymnastics), my focus is not primarily on “exercising my muscles” (although that is an added benefit) but first and foremost on the cyclical process of becoming aware of how I move, evaluating if the current choice is the best option available, making any necessary adjustments (based on my personal investigations) and listening in again to my movement quality.

This process of “listening-in”, of entering into a nurturing dialogue with myself through movement and sensation, through thought and image, has brought forth the only emotion worth deriving from any action: JOY.

Why this emphasis on JOY you may ask.

Well, a friend and teacher once told me that in the Vedic tradition the three attributes of God are Sat, Chid and Ananda, which in worldly terms would be something like: knowing all, living forever (aka being connected to all things) and being always in a state of bliss. She also said that for us humans it is difficult to realize when we are connected to eternal knowledge and eternal life, but we do come equipped with the capacity to know when we are connected to eternal bliss, and that is in the feeling of joy: an emotion that wells up from deep within and expresses itself in body and mind.

When Joy is present, when we experience a glimpse of Ananda, we are also experiencing a glimpse of eternal knowledge (Sat) and eternal life through the connection to all things past, present and future (Chid).


Sunday, 7 May 2017

On 21:05 by Victoria Stanham in    No comments

Good posture is more about how you move than how you keep still. 

During my early twenties posture was a nagging concern for me. One of my grannies had osteoporosis and a noticeable hump and the general postural tendency in my family is towards a rounded shoulder outline. My other granny, who was blessed with naturally good posture and steel hard bones, would swear her secret had been walking around with a broomstick across her back during her adolescence and reminding herself to “roll her shoulders up back and down” to keep her back straight. My sister, who in her teenage years showed early signs of slouching, was constantly reminded to stand straight and keep her shoulders back. She even had an elastic-harness-strapping-thingy that promised to train her muscles into holding correct posture.
With this background, it isn’t surprising that I grew up believing good posture is something you have to hold on to, an ideal form to keep and train your muscles into. When in my early twenties I started seeing signs of my own postural deterioration, I also bought myself one of the harness contraptions and would try to wear it during work hours, strapped on as tight as I could (the tighter the better, right?). It was horribly uncomfortable, painful even; it would leave me with incredibly sore shoulders and neck. But the most disheartening thing was that the minute I took off the torture device, my shoulders would invariably slump forward, aching but grateful that the day’s ordeal was over. In other words, my posture would fall apart the minute I wasn’t strapping it into its “correct” position.
This view of what good posture is, and how to acquire and maintain one, is fairly mainstream. A quick Google search for “posture exercises” will throw results that speak to this idea: which muscles need to be strengthened to hold you upright (mostly core work, i.e. abdominal and back muscles) and which need to be lengthened from their chronically shortened conditions (namely muscles which attach your limbs to your trunk, like the pectorals, the psoas and the hamstrings).
I hold no issue against these exercises, for I still believe that the relative length and strength of certain muscle groups does play an important role in so called “good” posture. However, I do have an issue with the model of posture that is behind them.
From a somatic movement perspective “posture” (as the term is generally understood) is an irrelevant concept, hence it makes no sense to hold on to neither the term itself nor any physical posture whatsoever. The word posture (linked etymologically to the word post) implies something static, and life is everything but that.  When you admire someone’s “good posture” what you are really admiring is their “poise”, their “alignment”, their capacity to adapt to constantly changing demands for balance and counterbalance, in such a way that there is a relative “quietness” of visible effort in their bodies. This “quietness” of unnecessary effort, this efficient play of equilibriums, is what “good posture” is actually all about: an “attitude” more than a “shape”.
The main problem with our understanding of what posture is, is thinking it has anything to do with a set form, “set” being the key word here. We are always moving, even when we think we are standing, sitting or lying motionless. Think of it, even when we are completely “still” we are still breathing, and that is already a form of movement that requires adaptations in the relative position of certain bones (ribs), muscles (diaphragm) and organs (lungs) which in turn cause adaptations in all other bones, muscles and organs. When we are standing still, we are balancing upright against the pull of gravity on a structure that is most decidedly not a post. As we can see, maintaining the illusion of “good posture” is more a question of managing the dynamic equilibrium of perpetually moving parts that keep realigning themselves to adapt to constantly changing inner and outer environments, than of keeping certain bits of our anatomy in a fixed position (shoulders back and down!).
Posture is a dance, full of improvisations, micro and macro adjustments of tone and direction. Since all our parts need to be ever ready to move in relation to our other parts, trying to maintain a fixed “posture” is nothing but interference with the action of living (at the very least of breathing).
For example, when I was strapping my shoulders back and down with the harness I was interfering not only with my breathing, but also with my walking. My shoulder blades need to move as I walk, both as part of the rotation of my trunk and the back and forth swing of my arms. By fixing my shoulders firmly back I was disturbing the natural movement of my arms and the rotation and counter rotation that should occur between my shoulder girdle and pelvis as I walk. This in turn unbalanced my spine and anything that unbalances your spine automatically increases the overall effort you need to exert just to shift weight from one leg to another in order to walk. Needless to say, if you unbalance your spine, you unbalance your-Self, for few things are more terrifying to your system than the possibility of losing your balance and ending up with your head smacking against the floor.
In a nutshell, the whole stand up straight, shoulders back, chest out, butt in directives are not only ineffective in correcting posture, they also causes problems when the time comes to actually move (which is all the time). So, instead of trying to maintain good posture, why not ask yourself whether everything is moving with ease?

How can you know that? Well, I think the key is in learning two things. The first is learning a little about how you are built for movement, have some basic idea of what your inner structures look like and what movement possibilities they have. The second is learning to tune into your movement quality, to how your body feels when it moves (does this movement feel easy, elegant and graceful, or painful, stiff and forced?). Putting these two things together is the surer path I know to finally acquiring and constantly updating your posture.