Tag Archives: alexander technique

Heavy Arms

Each of your arms weighs about 8-10lbs (roughly 3.5-4.5Kg).
That’s heavy… though we don’t really notice it because either the arms are hanging down beside you, or, if we do come to lift them, we use so many extra and unnecessary muscles to do the job (known as ‘recruiting’ in the Alexander Technique) that their weight is spread across the shoulders and neck.

Where’s the qi?
The result of this is that the qi is held in the upper body which means that
     • our balance compromised,
     • our breathing tends to be higher,
     • our ability to relax is diminished,
     • the flexibility of our necks and is reduced,
     • we’re more inclined to get headaches,
     • the rotational potential of our waist becomes less,
     • the range of movement in both shoulders and arms is massively impacted.

It’s all about the shoulders really.
The idea is to lift up your arms, forwards or sideways, and attempt to experience the weight of your arms. What this actually means is that, in order to get that feeling, you can only use the essential muscles. This will also mean that you will need to disengage the shoulders from the task; they aren’t necessary.

Weighing a fish.
The muscles that you use to do this should feel as though they are weighing a fish with one of those spring-loaded hanging scales (I guess that could be your hand luggage also, but the fish is a bit more interesting!).  You have to give the arms to gravity, letting go of the muscles so that they gently stretch. If you’re not used to this, it can make them ache as they undo, but it doesn’t last.

Now just do it for the rest of your life!
That’s how to use your arms in tai chi and qigong, but the concept should also be applied to every activity, whether cooking, reading a book, or driving your car, etc., in fact every time you start to raise your arms from the vertical hanging position.

Details of Tai chi and Qigong classes with James Drewe here.

The Fly & The Bay Window, or Relaxation & Perspective

The headache.Headache
I awoke with a headache a few months ago.  Still lying in bed, I tried to relax the area where I could feel the tension stemming from.

… Partial success.

The fly.
A few days later, I noticed a fly in the room which kept on attempting to get through the middle of the three windows in the bay – which was closed.  The windows at the sides were both open, but it was repeatedly attempting to crash dive the closed one; even though a fly has virtually 360 degree vision, it seemed to have tunnel vision.

fly-angles-2Perspective.
It occurred to me that my headache was also a matter of perspective, and like the fly, I wasn’t taking the over-all view, I was focusing too specifically.

Since then, I’ve had a couple of minor wake up headaches, usually coming from my upper back, and each time I’ve tried the ‘perspective relaxation’ technique, for want of a better name.fly-angles-1

What I should have done.
I put myself into the position of what the fly should have done to achieve its intention.  This was like standing outside yourself, and, with that overview, I was then able to relax a much wider area than just the specific point of pain.
This noticeably reduced the discomfort, as though, by releasing the periphery of the pain, it reduced the core.

Stand outside yourself.
This perspective is like standing 1 or 2 feet outside yourself.  It doesn’t  work if you try to feel and judge the results at the same time.  You need to ‘get outside yourself’, and attempting simultaneously to feel the results only brings you back inside yourself to the place where you experience the discomfort.

Taiji, Qigong, and The Alexander Technique.
If you’ve tried Alexander Technique lessons, you will know about taking in the whole picture as this is the basis of lengthening and widening, and fundamental to the concept of release, or ‘not holding on’.
This ‘openness’ is also fundamental to the movement of energy in tai chi and qigong.

Widening your perspective so that you see your body moving as a whole, and relaxation will ensure that your tai chi & qigong movements, instead of feeling clumsy, off-balance and heavy, will feel loose, coordinated, and flowing.

For details of current classes click here.

How to Brush your Teeth/Hair (aka lifting your arm).

Don’t think about it…  Try lifting your arm sideways.

‘Recruiting’
Almost everyone will have involved both the shoulder & neck.  Alexander Technique calls this ‘recruiting’ muscles – you are borrowing muscles which you don’t really need to do the job.

To lift your arm out sideways you actually only need 3 muscles:-

  • Diagram 1: the Supraspinatus
  • Diagram 2: the Deltoid (lateral fibres)
  • Diagram 3: the Serratus Anterior

Supraspinatus 1Deltoid 1Serratus Anterior 2

The Supraspinatus starts the sideways lift, maybe the first 30 degrees; the Deltoid then takes over until the arm is parallel to the floor. The final lift to the vertical is done by the Serratus Anterior.

Trapezius 2What most people do.
But most people use the Trapezius which has its origin in the neck at the mastoid process at the base of the skull.

So if you want to lift your shoulder this is a great muscle to use, but using it to lift the arms sideways or even forwards is a waste of energy.
The trouble is that we get used to it, and the ‘correct’ muscles don’t develop properly.

What does correctly lifting the arm sideways feel like?
If you put the middle of your palm on the angle of the opposite shoulder (where the arm joins the shoulder), and then lift the hand/arm sideways, you should feel a ‘hollow’ appear in the shoulder underneath your palm, as though the shoulder is sinking away from the palm.  It should almost feel like a set of old-fashioned scales – the arm goes up, the shoulder goes down, and the ‘hollow’ deepens.
If you don’t feel this, there’s a fairly good chance that you’ve engaged a few extra muscles to do the job.

Arm lift 'hollow'The ‘hollow’; what forms it?Deltoid & Acromium (posterior)1
The slightly worrying picture on the left shows the ‘hollow’ that forms when you lift the arm sideways (abduct it).
The middle fibres of the deltoid (the lateral deltoid) are attached to the ‘Acromium‘ – which is the end of your shoulder-blade.
So when you abduct the arm, after the supraspinatus has done the initial 30 degrees or so of lift, the middle portion of the deltoid takes over.

Deltoid & Acromium 2 The 3 portions of the deltoid, front (‘anterior’ above in red), middle (‘lateral’ above in green), and rear (‘posterior’ above in blue) are in a horse-shoe shape, as shown in the diagram on the left.Shoulder muscles
On lifting the arm beyond parallel to the floor, you start to feel the middle of that horse-shoe.

BUT, you don’t if the Trapezius, which lies on top of the shoulder, hasn’t relaxed.

And the final part of the lift to vertical.
Easy, you can feel this yourself.  Put your opposite hand on the muscle – on your ribs, at the Serratus Anterior 5side of your body, below your arm.  When you lift the arm from 90 degrees to 180 degrees, you can feel something going on under your hand.

The muscle is tightening and pulling the lower corner of the shoulder-blade as if to pull it under your arm.  This makes the final lift as it makes the acromium, which is part of the shoulder-blade, rotate further upwards.

Brushing your teeth/hair?
There are so many daily activities that we do where we keep reinforcing the incorrect use of certain muscles, and brushing your teeth is just one of them.
To the list you can add – brushing your hair, drinking, pointing at something … in fact, any action where we lift the hand as high as, or higher than the shoulder (and sometimes not even that high).

Teeth brush 1 Teeth brush 2

All you have to do is to spot when you do it!

Turning Your Head With Ease.

Whilst teaching, I’ve noticed that people do a number of unusual things when turning their heads.
Some tilt one ear nearer the shoulder which, in effect, lies the head slightly on its side, others lift the chin, some drop the chin, whilst others push the chin forwards.
None of these are much good for the neck, and some of them are potentially damaging.

Using the neck.
There’s a considerable amount of use of the neck in both tai chi and qigong, although perhaps for different reasons (taiji arguably for martial reasons, and qigong for health reasons).  But before you even begin to turn the head, it’s important to release the neck.

How do you do that?
Easy… focus on the back of your neck and ‘stop holding on’.   If you do this with no other agenda, you’ll find that your chin drops microscopically (whatever you Cervical-Spine 3 DJ USEdo, don’t try to drop the chin).  This freeing of the back of the neck combined with the dropping has the effect of allowing movement in the upper two vertebrae of the neck – the atlas and the axis. Without the release, they catch – one of the reasons for the ‘grinding’ that you sometimes feel.

Sandra Riddell, an Alexander Teacher in Edinburgh, has the following suggestion:-
Ask the neck to “let go of the head” followed by something like “so that the head can lead the spine into length….”.  Several students have said they find this clearer and more effective than just saying ‘free the neck’; indeed I do also.

The above might be enough to solve some problems for a few people, but there is another angle.

Our senses.
The majority of our senses, taste, smell, and in particular sight, are on the front of our heads, and because of that, we tend to ‘go towards’ whatever we are trying to taste, smell, or see.

Occipital lobeWhen our eyes see an object, the message is passed to the back of the eye and then via the optic nerve to the Occipital Lobe of the brain.  This is the part of the brain that recognises and interprets those messages.  The receptors and projectors are at the front of the face, and the screen is at the back of the head.

A possible solution.
Bearing in mind that we are really seeing with the back of our heads, it occurred to me that in order for people to stabilise their heads when turning them, instead of turning the face to look to the left or right, they could try ‘looking’ through the backs of their heads.
In other words, it’s as though you have eyes in the back of your head; give some attention to the back of the head turning as though it were trying to ‘look’.

I was astonished by the results of this simple idea; where beforehand heads had lifted, angled, stretched forwards, etc., everyone’s head stayed level – not just in one class, but in several.  Furthermore, people were able to turn their heads not only more comfortably but also slightly further.

A few thoughts on this…

  1. By putting this simple idea into practise therefore, the head rotates from its axis, rather than reaching forward for information, which misaligns the upper cervical vertebrae.
  2. As you literally see with the back of your head, you are merely allowing the eyes to act as a pair of cameras and moving the screen around ‘behind’ you.
  3. Normally when we look at something, we look ‘out of’ our eyes; our attention moves away from the body during the act of turning the head (cf. ‘out of our minds’).  By the awareness of re-positioning the screen at the back of the head, we stay in the body, and instead of ‘looking out of’ our eyes, the picture comes to us.

Taiji & qigong ‘Peng’.
The best part for me was that this fitted in with the tai chi and qigong principles of ‘Peng’, where all the opposites of the body (left/right, top/bottom, front/back) should balance each other and work harmoniously.  All of a sudden, the importance of turning the head to (e.g.) the left, was also an importance of turning the back of the head to the right.

Sinking to Move (1) – The Lower Limbs

The Balance Problem in Certain Tai Chi & Qigong Moves
I’ve often noticed when teaching the Yang 24 that balance in certain movements often causes a problem for students – incidentally, this isn’t specific to the 24-step form, it’s just that this is a form that I teach more than others.
The moves to which I’m referring are any that require the body to turn to left or right at the same time as transferring the body weight from one foot to another (this could be a forwards or backwards step).
Some examples of this are: Parting the Wild Horses Mane, Brush Knee and Twist Step, Repulse Monkey, and Fair Lady Weaving Shuttles.
Golden Cockerel/Rooster and 164 Taiji Parkthe Kicks have their own set of problems, though perhaps for a different reason (at least, for the moment, although it will become apparent that the reason is actually the same), as there is no turn of the body in the same way in these two moves.

The knack of retaining the balance is to ‘sink the qi’ as you begin the process of moving into a posture.  The question is, how do you do this?

Stability & Instability
The basics are that, when we are standing on two feet, we are stable. When we step forward or backward, during that moment of taking a foot off the floor, we are temporarily unstable.  It is during this moment that we need to stabilise ourselves.  This is where the concept of ‘full’ and ’empty’ comes in.

Full & Empty
This concept refers to the energy status of the body; in order to be able to lift a leg, you need to ’empty’ that side of the body.  If you leave tension in the ’empty’ side, it isn’t empty, and the freedom of movement of the stepping leg is restricted.  When stepping in tai chi and qigong, this residual tension is nearly always in the hip and/or shoulder joints (which can also affect the stepping), – in other words the joints that attach the limbs to the body.

How do you sink the qi?
When teaching a move where a step is involved, I often use the expression ‘sink to step’ meaning “bend the stepping leg slightly (or a lot) just before stepping”. This is true, but isn’t the whole story.
What you really need to do is to ‘sink the qi’ just at the moment of freeing the stepping leg. This is partly something physical that you do, but it is also a feeling inside… a letting go of the hip joint amongst other things, and is a release of tension in one side of the body. There is a sensation of not holding on any longer, and the correct timing is essential.

Try a 3 stage test:24move-121
The starting position for all 3 stages is to stand with your feet side by side.

1) Notice what you normally do: Move the weight on to (e.g.) your right foot (ready to step). Now lift the leg ready to step. At the moment of lifting the stepping foot from the floor, try to feel what goes on in the hip.

2) Next, notice what you don’t normally do: Before moving your weight on to the right foot, stick your bottom out behind you, enhancing the ‘S’ bend in your back. Now move the weight on to (e.g.) your right foot (ready to step), and lift the leg ready to step.  You could try actually stepping.

3) Observation & enhancement: Now do (1) above more consciously. If you are able to let go of your hip joint at the moment of shifting the weight, you will find that your bottom sinks slightly. In other words your pelvis does a slight rotation – the tip of the coccyx dropping further as if to tuck between your legs. You will also feel the lumbar area of your spine flex slightly (the ‘S’ bend beginning to straighten out). If you don’t hurry into the step (in fact try not bothering with the step at all), you will feel a sensation of sinking into the foot that you’re stepping from.

 157a Man exercising taijiWhy does the hip rotate and the spine flex?
Each time you lift your knee, for whatever function, you need to engage your core muscles (try lifting your knee as high as possible – it’s unmistakable). This means that your abdomen draws in slightly. When you draw in the abdomen, the hip rotates and the spine flexes.
BUT, the hip cannot rotate efficiently if you forget to release the hip joint. Locking up one part of your body compromises the other parts causing them to either malfunction, or to attempt to do a job for which they are not designed. In Alexander Technique this is called ‘recruiting muscles’.

‘Not Holding On’
Incidentally, I used the expression ‘not holding on’ above.  I know it’s frowned upon to use negative instructions, but I have found that this is far more effective than expressions such ‘relax’ or ‘release’ etc.  If ‘holding on’ is a negative concept in the process of free movement, maybe ‘stop holding on’ is therefore a double negative (= a positive) … just a thought.

Conclusion
So, to come back to the original point, i.e. the moves in the Yang 24-Step Form, you are asking your hip to function efficiently not only whilst moving forwards/backwards, but, in the cases of Parting the Wild Horse’s Mane, and Brush knee, etc. whilst turning at the same time.
When standing for Golden Cockerel or the Kicks, the same principle applies – the sinking again performs the function of grounding you by allowing your hip to move into the right position, prior to rising out of one foot.  This activates the spine, allowing it to connect from foot to waist to middle of the back (opposite the heart) to neck to crown.

Just ‘stop holding on’.

‘Forcing’ & ‘Allowing’… it’s not just semantics…

The classics say:
Head upright to let the shen [spirit of vitality] rise to the top of the head. Don’t use Li [external strength], or the neck will be stiff and the qi [vital life energy] and blood cannot flow through. It is necessary to have a natural and lively feeling. If the spirit cannot reach the headtop, it cannot raise“.

Actually, it’s a great description! But it begs the question, how should you position your neck … not just in Tai Chi, but in day-to-day use?
If you are told to ‘hold your head up’, you’ll probably do one of two things – either you’ll try to make yourself a bit taller, or you’ll lift your chin.
In both cases you will have tightened the back of the neck, which means that you will have used Li (external strength, i.e. the neck muscles).Cervical-Spine 3 DJ USE

So the instruction is to “have a natural and lively feeling.”
The Chinese had the same problem – that of trying to describe a feeling…. because it isn’t an action, it’s actually a non-action!
‘Natural’ here means ‘don’t do‘, and ‘lively’ means ‘aware’.
Taiji often refers to the head being drawn up as if by a silken thread; Alexander Technique refers to the head being ‘forward and upward’. It’s all the same thing, but how is it done?

A relaxed muscle lengthens.
When a muscle lengthens, the ends (known as ‘the origin’ and ‘the insertion’) move away from each other – the muscle relaxes or releases.
Conversely, when a muscle shortens, the ends move towards each other – the muscle contracts. This is always to alter the position of one body part relative to another.

TMJ 2aaa DJReleasing your neck.
To do this, there are two directions or planes that need to be taken into account – one horizontal and the other vertical.

Horizontal:
This refers to how far forward or backward the head sits on the spine/torso.
E.g. Without lifting or dropping it, try pushing your nose towards the wall in front of you – you’ll feel the neck crane forwards. You can do the same by pulling your nose backwards also.  In both cases, notice how Head & Cervical vertebrae (side) with arrows & wordsthe neck tenses.

To find the right position, try the following:-

  • Leave your lips together.
  • Drop your lower jaw inside your mouth.
    To make sure that you really have dropped the lower jaw, start to do a yawn with the lips closed (but not too much as you will tense the front of the throat).
  • Notice what happens to the back of the neck; you should find that the head needs to alter position, especially if you stick with the yawn idea.

(Incidentally, this is another example of the auto-balance of the body mentioned in the previous blog).

Vertical:Cervical Spine 3a DJ
Forget your neck for this, it’s one small part of a larger picture.

  • Feel your feet on the ground; feel the top of your head.
  • Notice the distance between them.
  • Visualize the body as a piece of elastic with the origin as the feet and the insertion as the top of the head.
  • Let the feet (and particularly the heels) feel as though they are sinking into and through the floor.
  • As you do so, let go of any tension in the elastic (muscles) which will allow the body (i.e. you don’t take any active role in this) to reach its natural height.

Drawings by Damian Johnston: http://www.fatfly.com

Movement and Stillness – Sinking the Qi.

166 Taiji ParkIn order to be able to move with ease, it is necessary to relax just prior to the movement.
Ideally you are looking for body movement to feel so natural that there is no effort involved, and one of the ways to achieve this is by relaxing beforehand.
‘Relaxation’ means ‘sinking your qi’; a release of tension in the body on a cellular level, combined with ‘intention’.

This sinking is like the calm before the storm, the end of the out-breath before the In-breath, the moment before the dawn chorus begins, the moment when a horse is about to tackle a jump.  It is a moment of calm, but also of anticipation; of rest, but also of gathering; of release, but also of potential…. like the compression of a dropped ball as it lands before bouncing upwards again, or a sailing boat during the moment of tacking before the wind catches the sail again.

The initial action doesn’t exactly cease, but softens to allow in the relaxation, sinking, release, rest, or calmness. You could also see it as the momentum of the initial movement being allowed to die away naturally and, because it naturally sinks, it becomes like a spring loading up prior to releasing into the new movement. On the theoretical level, it is the interchange of yin and yang.

This doesn’t mean that people perform taiji like frogs bouncing up and down, and if it is done this way it means that the concept has been externalised…
This is something that you can only produce when you feel it in every fibre of your being.  I say feel because, superficially, you can mimic it, or make it look to an outsider as though this is what you are doing… acting the part, but when you do so without feeling it in every cell, you won’t be moving with ease, and your energy won’t sink completely.
In the Alexander Technique this has been described as ‘free movement’; movement that is unencumbered by any tension or ‘holding’ by muscles in the body – something that we generally don’t do comfortably.

156 Man exercising taijiMovement must come from stillness. This means that anything must come from its opposite – the further you want to throw the ball, the further you must first withdraw your arm; the higher you want to jump, the deeper you must first sink.
The ‘stillness’ lies within the action of this withdrawing or sinking.

In taiji it’s one of the hardest things for most people to allow to happen; in other words, the mechanical action is easy to emulate, but feeling it can be tricky because most people are busy making sure that their limbs are in the correct position, the body is turning as it should be, the head is held in the correct position, the eyes are looking where they should be, the weight is on the correct foot… etc. etc.
Which, of course, is why we practise a taiji form over and over again, because only when you are absolutely familiar with it can you see what lies inside the movements.

So, as you change from one posture to another, at the appropriate places, allow the muscles to release and soften, allow the sinking of the qi to take place, allow the cells of the entire body to relax, and, combined with the intention behind the movement, movement itself suddenly becomes free, fluid, coordinated, and comfortable as you move exactly as the body was intended to move.

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