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.



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