Friday, 20 June 2014

On 22:23 by Victoria Stanham in , , ,    No comments
Image by Tina P.
Anyone who practices a sport, or any other type of physical activity, has at some point been in the situation where a certain movement seems “undoable”. Maybe it’s a yoga pose, or the roll-up in Pilates, or the serve in tennis, or the butterfly stroke in swimming. We practice, and practice some more, get some advice on form and technique, practice, and practice again, and end up frustrated and believing that, “This is just beyond my capabilities. I’d better find myself another hobby”.

What are we doing wrong? Why are we not ‘getting it’? After all our invested effort, why are we still struggling?

No doubt the element of technique and coordination needs to be learnt. That’s why we take lessons or hire a personal trainer who teaches us correct technique and corrects our form.

No doubt there is also the element of practice (good old repetition) to learn the necessary muscle coordination to get the movement sequence right. And for some exercises there is also the need for muscle strength, and that takes time to build up.

However, there is an element that is generally overlooked, but should go BEFORE any discussion about correcting technique or increasing practice hours. When this element is lacking, you are setting yourself up for frustration and possible structural damage to your joints, bones and muscles.

In order to avoid these psycho-physical ailments, I suggest that, before you start practicing the same thing over and over, you acquire a good grasp of the following three items:

1. Your general “postural” state

The foundation of all movements is in your “posture”.

The word “posture” has a bad rep, but mostly because it is a greatly misunderstood term.

We tend to think of “posture” as something static, rigid, tense, as something to be attained and held onto by sheer muscular effort.

However, our “posture” is determined by the RELATIONSHIP that our bones keep with each other. Our bones meet at the site of our joints. To have “good posture” means nothing more than to have enough space at those joints so that our bones can freely move and change their relationship to each other. It is a generalized state of free expansion, not one of tension and compression.

Your posture is not made up of the ‘position’ of your bones, but of the ‘relationship’ they keep with each other. This relationship allows (or not) your muscles to function at their optimum length and maximum potential.

Therefore, when you just can’t execute a movement correctly, the first thing you need to check is your postural state. Are you contracting or expanding? Is there enough space in your joints for your bones to move freely and your muscles to act at their optimum length?

Trying to correct your execution of a movement before freeing up your general postural state, is like trying to drive your car with the hand-break on: possible, yes, but at a huge energetic and structural cost. If you insist on driving in this manner, you’ll surely end up with a broken car in the near future!

2. Your ability to keep this expansive postural-state during movement.

Once you establish this state of expansion and joint space, you need to learn how to keep it going while you move. This is not easy to achieve at first.

If you’ve been practicing a movement for any length of time, chances are you already have a learnt way to execute it that “feels correct”, even if this way isn’t delivering the desired results. I can assure you that you have this recorded sensation in your memory because while you were learning to perform the movement, and were rehearsing it over and over again, you were doing so not from this new expansive postural set-point, but from a different starting postural state.

For your “sensory-muscular memory” the movement has to “feel” a particular way, and your brain (more specifically, your cerebellum) will do everything possible to guide you towards the manner of using your body which produces that feeling.

Correcting this “sensory-muscular confusion” is going to take some effort from your consciousness and your attention. This can be more exhausting than doing push-ups and pull-ups!

But don’t be disheartened, for with this practice you’re killing 2 birds with one shot. On the one hand you’re correcting your faulty execution of the movement you so much want to ‘get right’. At the same time, and with no extra work on your part, you are becoming more intelligent, learning to focus your attention, and increasing your capacity forself-control. All in all, not a bad bargain!

Items 1 and 2 are what an Alexander Technique teacher can best help you with. But the 3rd item will depend exclusively on you, and it is:

3. Remembering to never start to practice the movement without previously: a) releasing into your expanded state, b) having a clear idea of what the movement requires, and c) having an action-plan to carry out your movement without losing your expanded state.

This is perhaps the most important point: Remembering to stop before starting.

It is only if you REMEMBER to apply points 1 and 2 before executing the movement, that you’ll be able to achieve conscious control of your execution, and thus finally correct any deviations from optimal form.

How important is this conscious control in correcting your execution of a movement?

Well, if you’re distracted, or in a hurry to get immediate results, you’ll be less able to control your impulses. And your impulse, if there is no conscious control, will always be to do things according to your established habits. And your established habit is exactly what you want to change. Hence: conscious control is vital!

Although you have the ability to do the harder thing (that which requires self-consciousness and self-control), you are biologically programmed to do exactly the opposite (the easier thing, the recorded and memorized program that requires no mental energy).

There is nothing wrong with living according to your habits. The problem is when those habits are getting you into trouble or stopping you from achieving what you want. The only way of changing a habit is by using your ability to pay attention, focus, concentrate and be self-aware… it is not a muscular task, it is a mental one.

DO SOMETHING CONCRETE WITH THIS: Choose a movement in which to apply this sequence of thoughts.

  • Choose a movement you want to correct. Example: I want to correct my tennis serve.
  • Investigate the different movements that make up that bigger movement, and choose one of them. Example: lifting the arm above shoulder level.
  • Take note of all the different circumstances in which you do that movement in your daily life. Example: when I try to reach something above me on a high shelf, when waving to a friend, when hugging my tall partner, etc.
  • Of all those situations, choose one or two, and commit to applying the 3 steps before executing the movement. Example: each time I have to reach over my head to grab a plate from that high shelf, I shall stop before starting to lift my arm, expand by releasing into my full free posture, consider what is and is not required for the action (no need to lift my shoulder), and smiling and breathing I shall lift my arm.

The first thing you may discover is that you forget to stop, and only remember you meant to do so when the action is already complete or underway. Nevertheless, if all you manage in this week is to catch yourself once or twice before hurling yourself unthinkingly into action, you will have achieved a lot: you have started to break the habit… consciousness prevailed!

Let me know what you discover.

See you next week.


Friday, 13 June 2014

On 11:53 by Victoria Stanham in , ,    2 comments

Tell me the truth, how many times did you see an article that starts with “how to…,” you quickly scanned it, “liked” it on Facebook, shared it with your friends, mother, cousins and sister, recommended everyone try it out… and you… DID NOTHING with it?

You’re not alone. We all do that. We collect books and articles, we enroll in courses, workshops, and classes, and we clip out the recipes and exercise routines that appear in magazines… Ready! All set! Now we know what to do. So… Why is that we’re not doing it then?

What super-powers do I need, to finally do what I intended to do?

It turns out you need to use your 3 super-powers:

1. The Power of Knowing WHAT to do:
You need to know what to invest your energy on, and how to do so in the most efficient way, in order to achieve your purpose.

2. The Power of Knowing what NOT to do:
Once you’ve decided what to do, you need to find out how it is that you sabotage yourself from actually doing it. Surely there are things you do, of which you are currently unaware, but that interfere and hinder your journey towards your goal. Here is where self-observation will become your greatest ally.

Knowing what to do and what not to do are the first steps. However, for you to finally do what you set out to do, you’ll need to use a third power:

3. The Power to REMEMBER what it is you want to do, and what you don’t want to do, when it really matters:
All your self-observation and analysis will be pretty useless unless you remember to make use of the information you gained from your observations and conclusions. Most of the times we don’t do what we intended to do the problem can be traced back to our INABILITY TO REMEMBER OUR OBJECTIVE! You need to make it a priority. Your brain needs to know that this activity is important to you. If not, it won’t be on the lookout to remind you what your real purpose is, when another activity threatens to interfere with your original objective.

So, it’s all very nice with words but, for this information to be really usefeul…


If your objective is to do more physical exercise, but you’re finding yourself unable to stick to your plans…you need to investigate what sort of challenge you’re facing:

1. KNOWING WHAT TO DO: If you don’t like exercising, perhaps you need do re-define your relationship to it. In this article I tell you a little about how you can do just that.

2. KNOWING WHAT NOT TO DO: If you like to exercise, but you’re finding it difficult to do it with any degree of constancy, you need to investigate what’s causing the interference in your flow. Are you too tired? Are you afraid of looking ridiculous? Is it pain? Are you lacking basic technical knowledge? Is it the group, the teacher, or the venue that is putting you off? The sooner you discover what the hurdle is, the sooner you’ll be able to find a solution to it.

3. REMEMBERING: If you have already re-defined your purpose to get moving, you’ve chosen form of exercise that motivates you, you’ve already fished out the obstacles that were stopping you and have taken steps to remove them, but you still find yourself doing something else when the time comes to go workout… you’ll need to help yourself REMEMBER your purpose.

You need to turn i tinto a priority: put reminders on your phone, fridge, computer, highlight and circle out the time slot in your daily planner, leave everything ready way in advance. Do anything and everything necessary to tell your brain that, “This is IMPORTANT to me, so PLEASE remind me about it when I’m about to fall into my old habits.”

This is all for today. Now you’re free to go “like” the blog on Facebook, share it with your friends, tweet these recommendations to the tweetosphere. But don’t forget that YOU also need to do something with this… and then tell me in the comments box below how it worked out.

See you next week.


Friday, 6 June 2014

On 16:19 by Victoria Stanham in , ,    No comments

The internet is full of articles on how to do and how to improve your execution of almost any exercise.

Want to improve your posture? Search for “posture exercises” on Google. Want to tighten up your core muscles? Search on YouTube “core exercises”. Want to learn how to do barefoot running? You search for “how to start barefoot running”. Etc.

Image from Yoga Journal
Even I had thought of writing today a guide on how to do isometric abdominal exercises (planks) without tension (they’re in vogue apparently… all my students ask me to teach them those… they even came out in the last edition of Yoga Journal).

But if identifying what you want to change (e.g. posture), and googling what exercises remedy the condition were enough, we’d all be set for life (and a whole lot of teachers and coaches would be out of business). However, not one of those articles or videos will help you see why it is that the exercises should work but actually don’t do so fully.

Therefore, before starting to fill the cybersphere with even more how to articles, I want to clarify what you need to know before you read another how to article on specific exercises. Only then will you be able to take advantage of the invaluable information floating around the web.

It all starts with your BodyMap...

Body-mapping is your ability to know how and where your different body parts are, and what they’re doing at any point in time. Your ability at body-mapping is at the base of your ability at controlling your body movements with any degree of precision.

For example, if the instructions for doing a correct ab-crunch call for, “keep your neck long and relaxed”, it isn’t taking into account the fact that you and I have different definitions of “neck”. Therefore, when we “relax our necks” we’ll relax slightly different parts in slightly different ways… and when it comes to your body, accuracy in your body-map makes all the difference in the precision of your movement.

Much of what you believe about how your body is designed, and where you feel the different body parts articulate with each other, could be sabotaging your success and creating unnecessary tension, wear and tear.

Learning to tune up your sensory appreciation, that is your mental body map, will give you the strategies to develop a precise control of your body. That fine control will make you more efficient in your energy usage. And that efficiency will give your more strength, power, and stamina to use in what each exercise or movement really requires of you (and not misuse your energy in tensing muscles that little have to do with the action at hand).

In order to start tuning-up your body map, you need to know which key parts are missing from it today.

The way to improve your body-map is first to discover which bits and pieces of the map went MIA.

Self-knowledge is at the base of sensory appreciation.

Become and impartial witness of your own Self.

You need to become the subject of study in your own investigation. Any teacher can give you a bunch of tips and experiments on how to explore how your body feels. These exercises will be based (at least we hope so) on their own experience in the area, on things that have worked for them and they share with the intention of helping you on your journey. However, the only data that will be really useful to you is that which you collect yourself from your own investigations. Use the examples from your teachers as a basis for your own investigations, but you need to discover what works and is true for you.

So, it’s all very well with words but, for this information to be really useful to you…

DO SOMETHING CONCRETE WITH IT: Choose your first area of investigation in your BodyMap

Choose a space in your body to observe and study this week. Keep it in mind during your workout routine, or while you walk, or during specific times you assign during the day. Put a reminder on your cell phone, or a post-it note on your laptop, to remind yourself to periodically stop and observe.

I’ll give you some suggestions and areas I work with my individual students:

  • The space occupied by your bones: There are some key bony structures that are worthwhile to know where and how they are.

If you choose this challenge, I suggest you observe your sitting bones. The sitting bones are those two protuberances you feel under your bum when you sit. Try feeling them when you’re sitting and check to see if you favor one or the other, if you tend to sit with them rocking back (almost as if you’re sitting on your coxis bone… ouch!) or rocking forward (almost on your pubic bone… ouch too!). Rock on them (their shape is rather like a rocking chair) and notice what effect that has on your column. At what point in the rocking motion does your column seem to be the straightest? What happens to the contact of your sitting bones on the chair when you cross one leg over the other? Do you sit with both sitting bones on the same line or is one further forward or back? Try walking with your sitting bones and feel what that motion does to your whole torso.

  • The space in your joints: A joint is the place in your body where two bones meet and the forces travelling through them can change directions (e.g. the knee, the hip, the shoulder, the elbow). For bones to move and change their orientation in space there has to be space in the joint.

If you choose this challenge, I invite you to observe your shoulder joint. The place where your humerus (the upper-arm bone) and your shoulder blade meet is actually your armpit. Learning to release the muscles that make up that space is key to creating space for the movement of that joint, and to reduce tension in your neck, shoulders and upper back. I suggest you try the box exercise I explain in this article. Do you notice any change in the tension in your neck, shoulders and upper-back? Do you notice any difference between the placement of one shoulder with respect to the other after releasing one of you armpits?

  • Spatial relationships between body parts: You can think all sort of lines that relate one part of the body to another, and take note of how those spaces adjust during movements.

One possible space relationship to observe is that between your sitting bones, o between one armpit and the other (the line across your upper chest). With my students I use a whole series of lines that connect the body and allow for it to expand, release and integrate, without traces of undue muscular tension.

Take your time

Any personal change requires 2 types of time.

One of them does not depend on you. It is the chronological time in which change occurs … change is after all a movement in space-time. There exist no instantaneous changes. Therefore: give Time time for change to occur.

The second type depends solely on you. For change to occur at all you have to do something to catalyze it. The simple act of consciously observing your inner spaces will start this chain reaction that will result in a change. Therefore: take time to observe yourself to help change to occur.
See you next week.