Today my thoughts go to Warren Ebel, Steven Schumacher, Brian Maugh, Kevin Kehoe, and Kevin Oldham, all dearly loved by me and all dead from AIDS. They all died before the medical breakthrough in 1996 that now allows people to live a normal life with HIV and not fear the horrible deaths caused by AIDS. And now you can even prevent yourself from getting infected by a simple pill taken every day. I urge all who are HIV negative to ask your doctor about PrEP. It can keep you safe in ways condoms cannot. http://www.cdc.gov/hiv/basics/prep.html
RIP Warren, Steven, Brian, Kevin and Kevin. I still miss you and always will.
The results of a new study on chronic neck pain (more than 3 months) has just been published. The short version: both Alexander Technique and acupuncture decreased pain by about 30% even after 1 year, which is significantly better than standard medical care which included prescription pain medication, doctors visits and physical therapy. The subjects who took lessons in Alexander Technique took on average only 14 lessons, less than the recommended 20.
The full study is published at the Annals of Internal Medicine from the American College of Physicians but is protected by a paywall: http://ift.tt/1WvLtXf
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My recent trip to the reunion of the Frankfurt Ballet reminded me just how much I love working with dancers, musicians and other performing artists. I have therefore decided to offer students and young professionals a chance to study with me at a very low price of just €25 for a full, 30 minute lesson.
At the bottom you will see some tips from “the experts”. Approach these with caution! Sitting on a large ball as recommended is no guarantee that you will not slump and slouch into the same habitual position as in a chair. And the benefit of any exercise is completely dependent on how you do it, but there are no instructions provided regarding the how, nor are there any warnings regarding the possible hazards of doing them in a harmful way.
Instructions for how to do exercises are frequently incomplete in that they just assume if you are told what to do, you will know how to do it in a healthy, coordinated way. That is really just magical thinking and not at all true. For example, very few people will be able to perform a hip flexor stretch as shown in the article in a way that maintains the easy balance of the torso. While stretching the flexors of the right hip they will unconsciously pull down the left side of the torso, resulting in a tightening of the hip flexors of the left leg. This is like taking one step forward and one step back, resulting in getting nowhere fast!
It is of course possible to do all the exercises shown in a manner that is not counterproductive. But if you can do that, you probably do not sit in such a counterproductive manner that you need to do the exercises in the first place. Want proof? Book a lesson with me and I’ll show you. It’s easier in the long run to prevent the bad sitting than it is to repair the damage it does.
The Swimming Blog at the Guardian has posted a video of how to swim using the Shaw Method, a very well thought out application of the Alexander Technique developed by Steven Shaw. Watching him swim with such ease makes you want to jump right in and glide.
Back pain can affect anyone of any age, even young dancers!
A young dancer who attended an introductory workshop of mine is writing his thesis on the subject of low back problems amongst dancers. As part of his research he sent me the following 5 questions:
Can you describe what the Alexander technique is in approximately 100 words?
The Alexander Technique is a systematic approach to organizing and improving one’s proprioception in order to gain more conscious control of habitual thoughts and behaviors that interfere with health, balance, well-being and performance. It is based on the discoveries of F.M. Alexander (1869-1955) regarding the use of the head and neck in relation to the trunk and its effect on overall coordination and functioning. It is usually learned with the hands-on guidance of a teacher, although its basic principles can be effectively communicated in a group setting.
What is your opinion, thinking from the Alexander Technique, on the cause of low back problems with dancers?
I would say that almost all low back problems are the result of faulty habits in one’s postural behavior, and that there is no fundamental difference between dancers and non-dancers in that regard. Common to most low back pain sufferers is the habit of habitually hyper extending the knees, thus causing more strain on the low back. If a dancer uses too much effort to obtain “stretched knees”, combined with too much effort to “pull up”, then the result will be a shortened, narrowed back with increased pressure on the lumbar spine, a hollow back and ribs that are pushed forward. The dancer then tries to correct all this by increasing tension throughout the abdominals and intercostals, thus adding yet more pressure and stiffness to the trunk. This tendency to do more (tighten this, hold that, strengthen this) rather than do less (stop distorting yourself) is a very strong contributing factor to low back problems.
Another common source of low back pain is using the lumbar spine as a bending joint rather than using the hip joints, which are considerably lower. This habit results in the feeling that the legs begin at the top of the pelvis, rather than below the pelvis, and so causes excess strain on the low back in all movements involving the legs. Many dancers first get this mistaken idea from a dance teacher who tells them to “feel as if your legs begin in the middle of your back”, or similar. These types of instructions in which the teacher asks the student to “try to feel something like” are almost always anatomically incorrect and can therefore lead to rather severe distortions of healthy coordination.
What can the Alexander technique generally do for dancers with low back problems?
The Alexander Technique works first to release unnecessary tension in order to free the postural reflexes to a more neutral state. From this neutral state the student then learns a new and easier way to initiate movement using conscious direction rather than habit or imitation. It is in the initial undoing process that most people stop experiencing pain.
How would you treat a dancer that has low back problems?
I don’t treat dancers differently just because they are dancers. Nor do I treat those with back problems very differently from someone with, say, neck pain or RSI. I first work with a student to notice how they tense the neck unconsciously when initiating movement, even though that tension is not necessary and often hinders the desired movement. Changing this use of the neck in relation to the head and back is recognized in the Alexander Technique as a fundamental misuse. As the head-neck-back relationship improves, all types of problems are resolved automatically, including low back problems in most cases. If a student is in severe pain, I will focus lessons more on how to perform daily movements in an easier way.
What advice would you give a dancer to prevent low back problems?
Learn to stop tensing your neck so that you can stop shortening and narrowing your back so that you can stop hyper extending your knees so that you can stop pressing down. That is easier said than done, but it really is that simple.
To all musicians, take heed: if you look more involved and passionate while playing, you will be judged to sound better also!
Classical music competitions pit performers against each other. Obviously, the most important criterion for judges is sound. But that assumption needs a new…hearing. Because a player’s passion may be the best predictor of victory.
In a new study, nearly 200 novices had to choose the winners of 10 classical music competitions. Some heard a music clip of the top three performances. Others saw a video with sound. Still others watched a silent video. And the participants were more likely to choose the winner if they watched the silent video, in all 10 of the competitions.
Then professional musicians gave it a try. These judges also only reliably selected the winners from the silent video. Musicians selected the winner more frequently even when all they saw was an outline of the motion of the performers.
The researchers say the findings show that novices and experts make quick judgments about musical performances based on visual cues conveying involvement and passion. The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. [Chia-Jung Tsay, Sight over sound in the judgment of music]
So what does this have to do with the Alexander Technique? If you are tensed and pulled down while playing an instrument, you look tensed and pulled down, which is a far cry from looking involved and passionate. As anyone who has attended a group class in Alexander Technique will have noticed, people look better and more expressive, more involved and more passionate, when they free their necks and lengthen upwards.
The Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital has a new scanner that allows doctors to view the foot and ankle in 3D in a full weight bearing position. That means they can even view the foot when the patient is wearing shoes. The scan they released yesterday shows clearly why high heels are problematic when it comes to foot health.
Women who regularly wear high heels often suffer from foot and ankle problems as body weight is transferred to the ball of the foot, adding pressure to sesamoids (the tiny pea sized bones under the big toe). Frequent wearing of high heels also squashes the toes, forcing the foot into an unnatural shape, which can cause intense pain and possible long-term damage such as clawing of the toes.
I have always encouraged my students to minimize their use of high heels, but I also have given them instruction in how to walk in them. I think most of the damage can be minimized by wearing heels in moderation, as the doctors in the study suggested, but also by learning how to direct the body in movement in ways that avoid undue pressure on any one point. Most women in my experience tend to avoid using the heel in high heels, and that leads to problems. Simply turning out very slightly in the hip joints while walking in heels helps to distribute the weight more evenly across the whole ball of the foot, and so might lessen the damage to the big toe shown in the video.
GoMulti is a New Zealand based sports magazine. In the May/June 2013 issue they included a short article on the Alexander Technique and what it has to offer athletes. What appears to be an edited version is now available on their web site. It includes some expert tips for both cyclists and runners:
Expert tips for cyclists by Barry Collin
Don’t collapse your back into a C- curve, because it restricts breathing. Collapsing the back produces in turn a collapse in the front, which restricts rib movement and breathing. One gets the most oxygen for the least effort from the floating ribs at the bottom of the rib cage. Collapsing forward restricts their freedom and much more effort is needed to use inappropriate upper ribs, and accessory breathing muscles.
Don’t tilt your chin up so that you break the line extending from your spine. Feel how the balance of your head (which depends upon correct muscle tone), is very important in the overall balance of the bike; the more you can allow the weight of the head to be transmitted down through the column of the neck and the length of the spine into the saddle, the more stable the bike will feel. The head, neck and back are now working as one integrated unit.
Let your legs do the work. Finally, keeping this sense of relationship between head, neck and back, allow yourself to pivot forward from the hip joints and then allow the heels of the hands to just support your weight on the bars. This is a poised cycling position. You soon appreciate that it is the legs that really must do the work. If the legs don’t do the work, the effort is passed upwards through the body. This will produce unproductive tension and tightness around the shoulders and arms, in the neck and jaw, and of course in the rib cage and the breathing.
Expert tips for runners by Malcolm Balk
The head leads and the body follows: RUN TALL, not military tall but an easy up. The spine should lengthen in the body, not bend forward in the direction of movement. The forward lean should come from the ankles not from the waist. Thinking up helps the athlete breathe more naturally as well as preventing back issues.
Lead with the knees not the feet. Alexander’s direction “let the knees go forward and away” is perfect for runners who want to reduce over-striding. Thinking of the knee leading, rather than reaching with the foot, encourages the runner to land more underneath the hip which helps to reduce braking and slowing momentum.
Avoid ‘end gaining’! Focusing too much on results is a great way to kill the joy of running and competing. Learning to run well, train intelligently and compete with courage and passion will bring results and enrich you as a human being in the process.