The Exploration Game

How can we explore the Alexander Technique for ourselves? It’s good to be able to learn and discover between lessons and also, because few of us want to pay a teacher for ever, it’s important to be able to ‘graduate’ one day and to feel we can continue to develop and grow independently. In this article I’m sharing a game that I’ve been exploring for many years, both with pupils and as part of my own practice. It offers a simple, gently structured way to help you to go beyond your ‘normal’, familiar patterns of movement without the guiding hands of a teacher.

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Why focussing on your pain feels right (but is exactly the wrong thing to do)

If you suffer from chronic musculoskeletal pain you probably think about it a lot. When you’re frequently in pain it can have a serious effect on your quality of life, your relationships, and your equanimity about the future, so this is perfectly understandable. Perhaps you experiment with different ways of holding or ‘guarding’ yourself to avoid or ease the pain, or flit from treatment to treatment, constantly monitoring your pain level to see if what you’re trying is ‘working’.

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However, no matter how understandable this response to being in pain is, there are a couple of reasons why it’s a really bad idea. The first is to do with a phenomenon known as ‘central sensitisation’. Often, when someone has been in pain for a while, the nervous system can get over stimulated and settle in a persistent state of high reactivity*. This lowers your pain threshold, meaning that your pain can be much more acute than the underlying physical cause would be on its own, and it can even result in pain continuing after the initial injury has healed. Interestingly, one of the contributing factors to central sensitivity has been shown to be stress and in particular, worry about the pain itself. Constantly obsessing about the pain, checking it out, and monitoring it can play a significant part in sensitising the nervous system and can actually exacerbate and sustain the pain you’re trying to get rid of.

The second reason why focussing on the pain is a bad idea, is that your moment-to-moment pain level is actually a very poor register of whether or not you’re on the right track to getting better. As we’ve seen, chronic pain is often related to emotional factors such as stress, and these in turn are affected by all sorts of factors in our lives which have nothing directly to do with the pain. Tiredness, work, and family-related events — even the weather — can have a big, though transient impact on how badly we experience our pain, which means that your pain level doesn’t give you a reliable indicator of whether what you are doing to improve matters is working.

The original, physical source of a great deal of chronic, non-specific musculoskeletal pain, is inflammation and aggravation caused by excess muscular tension putting structures in the body under pressure. Even pain that was originally related to an obvious injury is often intensified and prevented from resolving by a combination of poor body use and central sensitisation. So in order to be free of our pain we need to reduce pain related stress and learn to live and move with freedom and ease so that the physical inflammation and aggravation has the chance to die down and any underlying injury is given the space to heal. Continually focussing on and worrying about your pain sensations makes the pain worse, while taking attention and energy away from the sort of positive steps which actually will make a lasting difference.

As an Alexander Teacher my heart always sinks a little when a pupil comes to a lesson and, when I ask them how they have been in the week, immediately launches into a detailed day-by-day description of how their pain levels have been. It’s understandable, but it’s a sign that the penny hasn’t quite dropped yet! On the other hand when someone responds by talking about the progress they have made in terms of how they’ve found a new level of freedom and lack of effort in their activities, how they’re finding a new level of support from their postural system, and how they feel calmer, less worried, and more present in the moment, I smile to myself — knowing that they’re already happier in themselves, and it’s now usually only a matter of time before the pain quietly resolves on its own….

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Three Things that get in the way of Effortless Good Posture

We all like to be confident, poised, and comfortable in our own skin! It looks and feels good to be effortlessly upright rather than scrunched, hunched, or holding ourselves in a forced way. But for many people this kind of ‘effortless good posture’ can be elusive. Here are three things that contribute to this.

1) Habitual worry and stress

In a previous post I explained how, in order to allow our innate postural system to support us as it is designed to do, we need to let go of unnecessary muscular tension. Instead of holding ourselves stiffly in a ‘correct’ position we need to release into effortless, dynamic posture and poise. However when we are chronically emotionally stressed, worried and ‘on edge’ our nervous system is overstimulated which makes it difficult or impossible to let go. 

2) Inaccurate sensory feedback 

We tend to take it for granted that the sense we have of ourselves and of our movement through space (our kinaesthetic sense) is accurate. However for many of us this is rather optimistic! As we go through life this sense of ourselves in activity can become unreliable. I often have pupils who believe that their feet, pelvis and head are aligned when they are in fact pushing their hips forward or back by several inches!

3) Incorrect ideas about your structure

If I asked you to show me where your hip joints are where would you point to? I’ve been asking new pupils this question for many years and most point to somewhere on the crest of their pelvis—several inches higher and further forward than where the joint actually is. Can you feel the two bits of bone that stick out a little on either side at the top of you legs? These are at the top of your thigh bone (femur) and the joints are just a little bit higher and a couple of inches in from there.

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Another common error people make is thinking that the joint between their head and spine is low down on the back of their neck. This is incorrect! The spine continues up to a point roughly between our ears. For most people this is a very unintuitive discovery!

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Your postural and movement systems need an accurate ‘body map’ to function properly. If you have inaccurate ideas about your body’s structure you may be unconsciously asking it to do things which are not physically possible, or which go against the way it is designed to work, resulting in distortion, rigidity and excess muscular tension.

As an Alexander teacher I help people to de-stress, quieten their nervous system, and regain an accurate kinaesthetic sense and body map, so that instead of fighting against themselves and against gravity they can release into the effortless, dynamic support their postural system offers. It’s a delicious experience and a virtuous cycle. As we learn to live with less stress and tension we become more effortlessly upright, and as we become more effortlessly upright we experience less stress and tension. We look better and we feel better, and life is never quite the same again….

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Why Awareness is a Key to Effortless Good Posture

Chances are that when you think about your ‘posture’, you think about your back, and perhaps your shoulders and head. Most likely you think your spine should be straight and maybe that your shoulders should be held back and not hunched, or that your head shouldn’t jut forward so much. You may feel that there’s a right place for these things and a wrong place, and that if only you can find the right place and hold them there you will have ‘good posture’.

In my last post I suggested that the idea of holding yourself in a fixed position to attain ‘good posture’ is flawed and even damaging, and gives you the opposite of the relaxed, effortlessly aligned poise that is your birthright. Instead we need to let go of all this muscular tension and holding so that our postural system is free to activate and we can be held easily and dynamically upright by the muscles and reflexes that are actually designed to do the job.

It begins here, now!

As well as letting go of unnecessary muscular tension, several other things contribute to the activation of the postural system, and it all begins a long way from thinking about our back and shoulders. Firstly, and perhaps surprisingly, relaxed posture has a great deal to do with the quality of our awareness. Science tells us that the postural system doesn’t work in isolation, but is neurologically linked to our attention and balance systems to effortlessly support our structure in relation to gravity and the world around us.

Think of a cat hunting a mouse — it’s completely present, alive, poised and organised for pouncing.  How many cats have you seen with bad posture? Or think of the same cat coming up to nuzzle its owner’s hand. Once again, it’s completely present to what it wants, and its system responds by being vibrantly activated to support its reaching, nuzzling nose. How often do we see a person that vibrant, that poised, that beautifully aligned? Hardly ever, not least because it’s rare for a contemporary human being to be fully in the flow of what they are doing so that their postural system activates properly.

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Most of us humans spend much of our time not being quite present to ourselves or our surroundings. We withdraw from being truly here in the world and live in our heads and the past and future. But if we are not present, if we are not truly ‘here’ in the moment, the postural system won’t get the signals it needs to activate to support us as it should. So relaxed, effortless upright posture doesn’t begin with worrying about our back and shoulders — it begins with being gently present, and in conscious contact with the world around us....

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Effortless Good Posture

Pull your shoulders back! Tuck your bum under! Pull yourself up straight! Bend your knees a little! Activate your stomach muscles! 

What a lot of ideas we have about what good posture is and how to ‘get it’! Most of us want to feel and look good, we don’t want to be slouchers. But as we age we may find we are stooping more and more and get increasingly worried about it. The answer (reinforced by countless well meaning parents, teachers and physiotherapists) seems obvious. If we are slumping we need to stand up straight!

But who wants to spend their whole life pulling themselves into shape, applying all this effort simply to stay upright? No other creature needs to carry on like that just to support themselves! It sounds like hard work and it is hard work. Also it doesn’t work! Read on to find out why — and to discover a smarter approach to attaining effortless good posture and poise …

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The Postural System and the Movement System

Science tells us that (to simplify a little) we have a movement system and a postural system, and that they work on rather different lines. We experience our movement system whenever we do something — reach out for a cup, sit stand walk or run, we are using our movement system. It tends to make use of large muscles that are close to the surface, and it is under our conscious control. Using the movement system feels like we are taking a conscious action.

We also have a postural system which is designed to keep us upright against gravity. It tends to make use of deep muscles around the spine, pelvis and head/neck to stabilise our rather precarious structure and keep us poised and vertical. These muscles are designed for the job of postural support and don’t get tired in the way the larger movement muscles do. The postural system is generally more neurologically ‘low-level’ than the movement system. Rather like breathing or digestion, much of its function is automatic.

Here’s what goes wrong 

For various reasons, as we meet the pressures of modern life we gradually start to use our movement system rather than our postural system to hold ourselves upright. We are the only creature that can do this, and it’s one area where our highly developed brains, with their ability to reason, think, and interfere with things are a liability rather than an asset! Instead of letting our postural system support us as we did as young children, we start to hold ourselves up with the muscles and responses designed for movement. Whenever we try to ‘sit up straight’ or ‘pull our shoulders back’ as we believe we should, we are engaging our movement system, not our postural system! We are using the wrong system and the wrong muscles to get the results we want. 

Real good posture, doesn’t mean doing more and holding ourselves rigidly in position. It means doing less. It means letting go of unnecessary muscular holding and effort so that our exquisite postural system can do its job. 

As an Alexander Technique teacher my job is not to persuade people to hold themselves correctly, but to show them how to let go — to release into the delicious, relaxed, effortless support which is available to us all the time as soon as we know how to access it.

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Escaping the Cycle of Chronic Pain

Do you suffer from chronic or recurrent pain for which there seems to be no obvious solution, or perhaps even an established cause? If so you will be only too aware of the discomfort, annoyance and worry that this can cause. Ongoing pain can have a very negative effect on your quality of life, and can cause a great deal of fear about how it will effect your work, leisure activities and relationships.

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The Breath of Life (Part 5)

This is the final part in my series on breathing [see parts 1, 2, 3, 4]

In this final part of the series I will be looking both at how awareness of breathing can help our system to quieten down and come back into balance, and at how the breath can help us to find greater poise and freedom in movement.

Your Breath is a Bridge

Breathing is perhaps the only significant function in the body which is regulated unconsciously (by the Autonomic Nervous System or ANS) while also being able to be straightforwardly controlled by the higher brain centres. We can choose to stop breathing for a while, to hold our breath, speed it up, slow it down, and manipulate it in different ways. Because breathing belongs so much in both these worlds it also acts like a ‘bridge’ between them.

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The ANS is one of the main systems in the body for regulating our level of arousal. Faced with a dangerous or demanding situation it (usually) ‘activates’ us, increasing heart and breathing rates and releasing adrenaline to give us the energy and alertness needed to deal with the situation. When the danger passes (if all is working as it should) it quietens our system down and returns us to a balanced resting state. Because of the stresses of modern life (which offers conditions very far from those the body evolved to deal with!) many of us tend to live a lot of the time in an over-aroused state. This is reflected in tense muscles, rapid breathing focussed high in the chest, and a general feeling of being stressed and worried. Many of the stressors we encounter today do not dissipate so quickly  as a predator passing in the night! Money worries, unsympathetic work environments, challenging relationships and unsupportive communities — these are experienced as deep ongoing threats to our sense of safety, survival and self, and often they are difficult to get away from. At the same time there is often social censure around expressing feelings and allowing the tension which has built up in the system to discharge naturally. Many of us end up trapped in a state of ongoing stress where a level of ANS arousal is pretty much permanently locked into the system.

This is where the role of breath as a bridge can help us. Because it gives us a ‘link’ between the ANS and the more conscious parts of ourselves, it offers us a very direct way to encourage the ANS to quieten down and return to balance. Here’s something you can try:

Make a little time when you don’t have to do anything else. Lie down on your back on a firm surface with your knees bent (semi-supine position) and with some support under your head if necessary so that it is neither lolling back nor pulled forward. Give yourself a general intention or ‘wish’ to quieten down a little and take a few moments to come into your body. Can you notice that you are breathing and just take a general interest in it? Can you describe it to yourself? What does it feel like to be breathing? Which parts of you seem to be involved? What quality does the whole pattern have. Is anything within you (emotional or physical) resisting the free movement of the breath? Do you still have your original wish to be quiet, or has it dissipated in the urge to follow these instructions? Are you ‘holding on’ in any way in response to the instruction to look and take an interest? 

Can you be aware of what’s going on without trying to change it particularly? Whenever we try to change our inner state we are putting effort and stress into the system. What does it feel like to be patiently aware of what is going on without trying to change it? As you get up and get on with your day, can you keep the gentle intention to quieten down a little? Without making a another problem of it can you notice now and again that you are breathing?

Some people find it fairly easy to watch and take an interest without getting caught in judgement about themselves and trying to get it ‘right’. Others may struggle with this, particularly if their nervous system is caught in a cycle of stress and worry. If this is you then you can see some more information on what is going on in my blog post here. You may also find a few sessions with a teacher can help you to find clarity about what you are up to which makes it hard for your nervous system to settle and quieten down.

Your Breath is a Register

In previous parts of this series we’ve seen how the breath can’t really be considered apart from the rest of us. Relaxed and easy breathing depends on support from the postural system, because if that support is not there then we will tend to be using muscles needed for respiration to hold ourselves ‘up and together’. Because the breath is so intimately tied to our overall state of coordination (our ‘Use’ in Alexander terms) and because it is going on all the time, it can function as a highly sensitive register of what is going on in our system overall. Any level of unnecessary tension or imbalance in the system will be reflected in a subtle or obvious holding or constriction of the breath. In this way the breath can function like the relationship between our head/neck/back — when it is out of kilter it tells us that our system as whole is out of balance.

We can use this as a way to find ways towards moving more skilfully. Here's another thing you can try. Lie on your back with your knees bent and your head supported as in the previous exercise (I am suggesting lying down because it is easier to begin with as you don’t have to worry too much about gravity). Again spend a few moments to quieten down (N.B. your nervous system needs to be in a relatively quiet state for this game — it will not be possible to do this if you are in an over-aroused state). Now think about rolling onto your side and visualise how you will go about doing it—but without actually moving. Notice what happens to your breathing as you mentally prepare to roll. Does it tense up a little? Does it become held or restricted in any way? If so this indicates that you are asking your body to move in an unbalanced way, and it is therefore, by necessity, automatically bracing and holding on to make the movement possible. This tension in the system is reflected in your breath.

That is useful information. You have discovered something which you don’t want! This is far easier and less bother to deal with than becoming aware of something you do want—because all you need to do to deal with it is to say ‘no!’. So say ‘no’ to that way of rolling over. Spend a few moments to quieten down again. 

Now imagine another way of rolling over. Perhaps instead of starting by hauling with a shoulder you could think of letting a knee release. Again imagine doing it—maybe even try it out a little. What happens to the breath this time? Is it held more, less or the same? Gently, carefully, with patience, we can use this process repeatedly to find ways through complex movements which do not require us to brace and hold on. We say ‘no’ to those responses to the idea of moving which cause involuntary breath holding or constriction, and give consent to those that do not. We become explorers, and through saying ‘no’ to what clearly doesn’t work can come across movements which are relaxed, open, supported and free.

This is a powerful practice — but for some it may be challenging to find a way into it, particularly if your nervous system is over-activated. Often we can be quite removed from our physical selves, or may find it too difficult to slow down and really say ‘no’ or to give consent to unfamiliar movement patterns. In this case it may be helpful to have a few lessons with someone who can give you objective feedback about what you are really doing, and encourage your system towards a more relaxed and free way of doing things.

Breathe out!

As I’ve said before, breathing is both simple and complex — so complex that I’ve only been able to scratch the surface in this series of articles. However we don’t need to be overwhelmed by the complexity if we remember that breathing is not generally something we have to do. The body knows how to breathe. The point of understanding a little about how the mechanism works is not so that we can ‘do’ all that complexity ourselves, but so that we can become aware of the ways in which we interfere with that rhythm, so that we can choose to stop doing so. The best thing we can do for our breathing is to look after ourselves as a whole, and learn to allow the breath to do itself. Once we let go, everything flows.

I hope you've enjoyed this series and found it interesting. One thing I have not covered at all is the use of the breath for singing, speaking etc. I am to look at this in future, so this is relevant to you then watch this space!

How to feel more supported and secure

For many of us it's easy to feel overwhelmed in the face of the challenges and demands of our lives. Some seem to swim through life without too much trouble, but many others feel that they could do with a little more inner and outer support and security — or else may take pride in their self-reliance and dogged determination while paying a price in terms of stress and isolation!

Human beings evolved with a wonderful system to physically support and carry us  — and this in turn would have been held within the container of a supportive group or tribe. Today few of us fully experience this free flowing support on either an outer or inner level, and many carry wounds which can be traced to a diminished sense of community and loss of contact with our bodies.  As a result we may feel a lack of trust in ourselves and a nagging sense of doubt and insecurity in our relationship with the world.

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Security has an inner and an outer aspect. We get literal support from our physical structure, and from the experience of being embodied—and also social support from our relationships. These two sources of support are interrelated and inseparable. If we don’t feel a fundamental sense of physical security and support within ourselves it's hard to feel safe and secure enough to receive support from others. And it’s hard to access this physical feeling of support in ourselves if we are not giving and receiving practical and emotional support from our culture and those around us.

Inner security

Our inner sense of security starts with feeling a secure and relaxed sense of self—and our most fundamental sense of ourselves starts with the body. We may think that ‘ourself’ is a product of our mind, but it is only through sensation, feeling and contact that we know we exist in the world at all. Our sense of selfhood develops from being a body interacting with itself and the environment. So a true feeling of security is only possible if the sensations and feelings we receive from the body give us a feeling of safety. If the messages we receive from the body are not confidence giving (for example if we are constantly getting messages that the body is unbalanced, fixed, rigid, collapsed, incompetent, precarious or untrustworthy) then this will profoundly how we experience ourselves and our relationship to the world.

A question of trust

The body’s sense of security is fundamentally related to our relationship with gravity. We are upright and (uniquely) unstable creatures, and this brings us into a very different relationship to the ground than other animals. We need to feel secure, safe and competent even while balanced precariously on two legs — and from this balanced place be open and responsive, leaving our limbs free to do all the tasks which are part of living and survival for human beings. 

This is a tall order. When we first come into the world we are not able to support ourselves in any way at all. We are not only dependant on care-givers for food and nourishment, but also for physical support. A new-born horse can stand and run within 30 minutes, but for the first month of our lives we cannot even support our head and it needs to be held for us — and it takes up to four months for us to be able to hold our head against gravity when upright. 

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In the first few months of life it is essential that we are held, and that we sense it is safe to let go and relax into that holding. In time our postural support and balance systems develop and start to activate. These systems enable us to fulfil one of our fundamental tasks, which is to be learn to be supported in the earth’s gravitational field. To accomplish this they make use of deep muscles of postural support, controlled predominantly by ‘lower-level’ and largely involuntary/unconscious parts of the nervous system—including simple reflexes in the muscles and spinal column and the cerebellum in the brain. If all is working as it should, the balance/postural system is there for us to—in a sense—gently lean on. So long as there is a general intention to be upright and supported it will effortlessly and efficiently support us in a balanced, dynamic upright state. We don’t have to do posture, we just need the intention or wish and then to get out of the way and allow the system to work as should. This means that, when all is well, uprightness and relaxed poise feels like letting go.

However, to be able to let go into support like this implies an ability to trust. We have to be able to trust that our (neurologically low level) postural system will support us if we let go of higher level control. For some people this is fairly easy but for many others it is not. From the earliest age, and throughout life, we receive messages about trust and trustworthiness, and a sense as to whether it is safe to let go. As babies we need constant, dependable physical support to relax into, and if that is not forthcoming—or is qualified by, say, an anxious or overly demanding caregiver, we may have a question mark near the centre of our being about whether or not it is really safe to let go and trust in support. Later in life this impression may be contradicted by good experiences—or it may be reinforced by further experiences of lack of safety throughout our lives. 

If our primary experience is that is not safe to let go, it is likely that this lack of trust will find physical expression in us gripping with our large movement (phasic) muscles in an attempt to grab support rather than relaxing into the safety and security of our postural system. Instead of allowing fluid, dynamic uprightness we lock ourselves into position by holding parts of ourselves rigidly in relation to each other.

Trust in relationship

As well as needing to trust ourselves we also need to be able to have faith that is possible to respond freely to other people in order to create and maintain relationships in which we are able to give and receive support. Much of human relating happens way below the level of speech and reason. As essentially tribal animals, our nervous systems are highly tuned and responsive to each other and we pick up and respond to the subtlest physical cues from those around us, much of the time unconsciously. Our bodies are continually communicating with each other whether we’re aware of it or not. 

To relate freely and easily to each other there needs to be freedom for this unconscious dance to happen at a physical level. When we are unable to relax into the support of our postural system it becomes harder to connect with others. It may feel that we subtly keep people at arms length, or find it hard to fully settle and relax into each other's company. One reason that alcohol is so enjoyable for many is that it temporarily releases the muscular holding we carry with us and allows us to respond more freely to others—albeit often with a diminished level of consciousness and presence!

Support for the journey

Changing our patterns of trust, support and relating is a challenge and a journey. We may need to both look at our relationship to ourselves and our internal sense of support, and grow into new ways of finding trust and connection with others. We may need to let go of feelings and beliefs from the past which cause us to feel unsafe and unsupported and which no longer serve us. As our physical sense of support increases we find that our relationship to other people changes too. Increasingly we are more able to respond to and be supported by others while having a greater capacity to respond to them and offer support in turn. And as our relationships become more mutually trusting and supportive we find a deeper level of belief in ourselves and are more able to relax and let go so that we can gently ‘lean’ on the natural physical support our organism offers. As always, change in one aspect of a pattern is reflected in change in an other. Step by step life becomes easier, we feel more secure, and life begins to flow....

The Breath of Life (Part 4)

In previous parts of this series [see 1, 2, 3] we have have been looking at the anatomy of breathing and how the process works at a physical level. We will now look at some common ways in which this mechanism can get upset and out of balance, both physically and emotionally (the breath is intimately connected with our feelings — in fact it is not really possible to make lasting changes to the way the body breathes without corresponding changes in our emotional responses and behaviour). 

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Postural Factors

In order for breathing to work freely and easily, the muscles of respiration need to be available to do their job. When we are physically out of balance and alignment then muscles which are best left free for breathing may have to be co-opted to help out with maintaining our upright posture. This limits and constrains the breath.

Breath Holding and Body Image

A common psychological impact on our breath is when we are shamed into a negative image about our body, and so habitually hold our stomach in and attempt to look thinner than we are. This pattern is very common in our culture ad can cause problems because, as we have seen, the belly muscles must be able to release on the in-breath to allow the diaphragm to descend. When we habitually hold these muscles it restricts the breathing, which has knock on effects for posture, alignment, self-expression, and energy flow throughout the body.

Fear and the Breath

One of the most potent emotions to impact on the breath is fear. Breathing is intimately connected with our basic survival systems. Because of its links to the autonomic nervous system, breathing is related to our flight/fight and freeze responses to danger. At one end of the scale we have the basic response to fear which is ‘fight or flight’. In this situation the organism prepares to flee or attack whatever is threatening it, and it increases the depth and speed of breathing in order to charge the system with oxygen for any necessary action.  Alternately, in situations where the autonomic nervous system does not feel that it has a viable flight or fight option, the organism will shut down and go into a self-protective ’freeze’ response. In this situation the breathing becomes very shallow and may even stop completely for some time. 

Because the body’s ‘alarm system’ doesn’t know the difference between a physical threat and an emotional one (meaning anything which threatens our relationships with valued individuals or groups) it will tend to react to uncomfortable emotional events in a similar way to physical threats. If we have experienced intense or prolonged periods of emotional or physical threat or worry in our lives then some level of flight/fight or freeze response can become ‘locked in’ to our system. For example we may exhibit the shallow, collapsed, lifeless, breathing of someone who has tended to ‘freeze’ in the face of challenging life events. In this state we may find it difficult to take a truly full and free breath and thus we get stuck in in a small part of the lower end of our potential breathing range. 

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Alternately, we may be stuck to some extent in the high intensity breathing of an organism preparing for flight or fight — but be unable to fully express or discharge the pattern due to social pressures and norms. In this case we may ’tamp the response down’ with muscular tension, so that we end up breathing rapidly and shallowly high up in the chest, while preventing a full out breath by holding on in the belly and diaphragm. In this case our breath is trapped in a small zone at the top of our full breathing range and — because we have lost the ability to exhale fully — we no longer have access to the full range and ease of our breath.

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Positive Emotional States and Emotional Suppression

Of course, changes in breathing are also associated with positive emotional states. When we feel free and expansive this tends to be reflected in the breath. It’s hard to imagine feeling joy and lightness while tightly holding or constricting our breathing! Enjoyable activities like laughing, singing, expressive communication of different kinds, making love etc. all require the freedom to breathe expansively in order to be fully experienced and enjoyed.

However, if at some time in our lives we have come to believe that it is shameful to fully feel things, or that we are ‘not allowed’ to express ourselves, or that there is something selfish or not quite right in fully enjoying ourselves, we may feel a need to block the body’s normal tendency to want to experience such states. One of the most effective ways to do this (which is usually unconscious) is to hold on to the breath. This has the effect of shutting down the body’s ability to express and feel. It creates a (false) feeling of safety by dulling the threatening feeling — though at the expense of an ability to express, feel fully alive, and to experience a sense of joy and freedom in life.

Patterns of Disturbance

Disturbed breathing patterns take different forms depending on their cause, and the history and habits which have lead to them. Here are some of the more common ones:

Chest breathing. As we have seen, we may ‘hold on’ with our belly, pelvic floor and diaphragm, so that breathing happens mostly high up with the ribcage. This may be associated people who don’t feel safe to be fully in touch with their basic feelings and energy (which are experienced mostly in the belly). This pattern can result in tension and pain in the shoulders and neck.

Collapsed breathing. This is a different form of chest breathing where the shoulder, neck and upper chest ‘collapse’ and pull downwards — draining energy, spontaneity and expression. It tends to be associated with feelings of depression, stuck-ness and unfulfilled needs.

Frozen breathing. This is often found in people who have been exposed to a lot of fear, and is characterised by the outer musculature of the torso contracting and squeezing so that breathing is almost immobilised.

Gasping or ‘grabbing’ the breath. This is is when we gasp for the next breath without allowing the natural pause at the end of the previous exhalation. This sort of breathing can sometimes indicate someone who is always in a hurry and striving for the next thing, who can’t ever relax and allow life to come to them.

‘Throttling’ the breath. This happens when we constrict our airway through muscular tension in the throat. This is often found in people who have difficulty expressing themselves, or speaking what is on their mind.

Returning to Balance

It’s probably clear from the above that for many of us breathing in a more free and natural way is not simply going to be a matter of trying to do it differently! The way we breathe is a complex reflection of who we are, the experiences we have had, and the physical habits which have arisen as a result. Fortunately, however, the human organism is immensely adaptable and able to change. In the final part of this series we will be looking at ways in which we can gently start to undo any tangles we have got into and allow the breath — and hence ourselves as a whole — to return to balance and wholeness.

You can find the final part in this series on breathing here >>

Letting Go of Stress: a Contradiction and a Misunderstanding.

Do you ever wish you could be less stressed, tense and internally ‘noisy’? Have you ever tried to de-stress and quieten yourself down but without much success? 

When we want to quieten down but find it difficult there are often two things which are getting in the way: the first is that there is a contradiction in the way we are setting about things which we may not be aware of. The second is that there is often a specific faulty belief about the situation which — even if we understand the contradiction — can stymy our best efforts to change.

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The Contradiction

Being caught in a feeling of stress and tension is a bit of a ‘double bind’. If your nervous system is in a buzzy, over-stimulated state (which for many of us is the case a lot of the time) then you tend to lose touch with your innate ability to stop. When an organism becomes over-stimulated it becomes excessively hooked into that function of the nervous system which is to do with ‘action’ — with instigating and initiating things. The nervous system has another, complementary function, which enables us to ‘stop’, withhold consent or refrain from acting — but when we are in a highly over-stimulated state it becomes much harder to access this.

Take a moment now to think about quietening down and notice the response to that idea. I’ll bet at some level (perhaps quite subtle) there is a feeling of effort or strain. We want to do something to quieten down — but that doing is in itself not quiet. Our contradiction is that we want to be quieter but because we are over-stimulated the only mode of action which seems to be open to us is to do more — to chase this quietness; and the chasing is in itself more noise.  Though we believe at some level that our efforts will help (or we wouldn’t do them) we are actually putting even more stress into our system.  This compulsive wish to do something to get the result we want is like an endless chain. Noticing that we are doing it we probably then want to do something else in response. And again in response to noticing that! 

So what is the way out of our conundrum? How can we be more present and quiet without the search itself causing internal effort, noise and stress? There is a clue in a very old Hindu practice called ‘net-neti’. Neti-neti is a Sanskrit phrase meaning ‘not this, not that’. It forms the basis of a form of meditation in which ultimate reality is seen as something entirely beyond our everyday experience. Being beyond what we know, this reality can only be sought indirectly by noticing everything that it is not. When all these other things have been removed (negated) then what is left is the thing we are seeking. 

At a more down to earth level, neti-neti can help us in our wish to quieten down because we have a similar problem to the meditator: we want to approach something (quietness) but the only tool it seems we have at our disposal (‘doing’, effort and trying) are the opposite of what we want. So we need to change our focus from chasing the desired result (i.e. a quiet nervous system) to simply noticing the responses inside us which are not quietness. As the philosopher Krishnamurti noted, when we really see what is going on, the seeing is itself intelligence and right action. Our actions are always a reflection of our understanding. As we begin to notice and understand that our search for quietness is, in fact, more noise, this greater understanding allied to a general intention or ‘wish’ to quieten down, is itself enough to start things changing. Furthermore, as our organism quietens down a little it has more and more access to that function of the nervous system which enables it to ‘stop’, or refrain from doing things. As we notice and understand our habitual, effortful responses it is easier and easier for our system to ‘not go there’. A virtuous cycle is established.

The Misunderstanding

So much for the contradiction. I also promised you a misunderstanding, and there is a big one which, even when we have understood the problem, can still catch us out. This is that we may not understand that an over-stimulated nervous system takes time to settle. We tend to think that change should work like a ‘switch’, when in fact it is often more like a process. The body-mind is a highly complex system of feedback loops, chemical reactions, tension responses, habits etc. Like an engine with a big flywheel all this complexity takes some time to slow down — even after we cut off the petrol! 

Our trouble is that another side effect of our over-stimulated state is that it tends to make us anxious for quick results to prove to ourselves that we are on the right track. In our eagerness we keep checking to see if things have quietened down yet, and then get despondent because it is not happening. But often the problem is that we simply don’t understand that it takes a little time. It may take some days or weeks to allow an over-stimulated organism to calm down. Rather than chasing instant change ‘in the moment’ we need to see ourselves as engaging in a wise process in which we are allowing our bodies and minds to gradually grow in understanding and quieten down in their own time. 

What else can help?

Having a few sessions with an Alexander teacher is a powerful way to help ‘kick start’ this process of quietening the nervous system. The teacher is able to use their presence and touch to help your own system to quieten down. This can really help you to become aware of your responses and can help nudge you out of the cycle of doing and effort that keeps you caught in the trap. As you proceed, a teacher can help keep you on track, and offer guidance to avoid the pitfalls along the way….

The Breath of Life (Part 3)

This is a third part in a series on breathing. Here are links to Part 1 and Part 2.

In the last article I talked about the anatomy which supports the function of the lungs, allowing them to expand and contract to draw in and expel air. I'm now going to say a little about what happens higher up in the body to regulate the airflow and allow it to be used for vocalising and to support our structure.

The Trachea

Air flows into the lungs through the trachea which is a flexible tube of cartilage running from the larynx (voice box) to the lungs. It splits into two branches called bronchi, which feed the left and right lungs.

The Vocal Folds

The larynx contains the vocal folds (chords) which are muscles that run from front to back and can open to allow air through or close to seal the airway. When they are held together and air passes between them they vibrate to produce sound. 

We tend to think that the primary function of the vocal folds is to produce sound for speaking and singing, but they in fact have another, more important function, which is to play a part in preventing food from entering the trachea and blocking it when we eat (which is a potentially deadly scenario!). When we breathe, the vocal folds are in an open position, but when we swallow they close to seal the airway so the food goes down the oesophagus rather than the trachea (see diagram below). They are assisted in this by the epiglottis which lies above the vocal folds and descends as the vocal folds close. 

Because the vocal folds have this important — and life-saving — role in eating, there are very strong neurological and emotional connections between them and the tongue, and the muscles of the jaw and throat. These connections have significant ramifications for breathing, and especially for speaking and singing — there will be more about this in the next article.

The vocal folds, together with the 'false' vocal folds which sit above them, have a third important function. When our torso needs more support for activities such as lifting heavy weights, straining, expelling waste etc, they close and seal air inside the lungs. Because air is relatively hard to compress, the trapped air helps prevent the chest cavity from collapsing under the strain. This is assisted by muscles in the belly (particularly the rectus abdominus which runs from the breast bone to the front of the pelvis). These activate to support and ‘hold in’ the internal organs of the belly, which in turn supports the diaphragm so that pressure is maintained in the lungs. You can see this mechanism operating clearly if you imagine picking up a (very) heavy weight and grunt and seal your lungs in preparation. 

The Pharynx, Mouth and Nasal Cavities

Moving further upwards from the larynx there is the pharynx, which divides into the mouth and the nasal cavity. The soft palate is suspended above the pharynx, and because this can be raised and lowered we can choose to let air come in through either the mouth or the nose. 

All things being equal it is generally best for air to come in through the nose which has filter mechanisms to catch dust and particles. In addition, the nasal cavities act as ‘conditioners’ for the air. They have a large surface area and can adjust the air temperature to very close to that of the body. However sometimes mouth breathing is appropriate, for example when we need to take in a large amount of air quickly, or when speaking or singing.

Coming next...

In the next couple of posts I will explore ways in which many of us interfere with our (originally) very effective breathing mechanism. I will look at some of the problems can result and suggest what we can do — or more accurately ’not do’! — to improve matters.

<< Part 2     Part 4>>

The Breath of Life (part 2)

The Anatomy of the Breath

In Part 2 of this series (find Part 1 here) we are diving into some specific information about how breathing works, and about the structures in the body which support it. Fear not, I have kept things simple and short! Read this one carefully, as you will need a basic understanding of the information here as we go on to explore common ways in which we interfere with the breath in Part 3.

Onwards!

The Diaphragm

The diaphragm is the main muscle of respiration. It attaches to the lower edge of the rib cage and is shaped like a dome.  

When we breathe in, the diaphragm contracts and flattens. This increases the space in the chest cavity, causing the lungs to expand along with it. So long as there is a clear passage from the nose or mouth then air will flow in through the trachea to fill the lungs. Note that because atmospheric air is under pressure we don’t have to effortfully draw it in: it will come in naturally as the space for it increases.

When we breathe out, the diaphragm relaxes and returns to its former shape (with the help of some other structures that we’ll come to later) and the used air, now depleted of oxygen, flows out of the lungs again through the mouth or nose.

Note that we should never try to influence the diaphragm directly, it is not a muscle over which we have conscious control.

The Rib Cage

The word cage in rib cage is a bit misleading. It can easily be taken to imply a fixed and immobile enclosure when in fact it is a flexible structure. This flexibility enables a greater expansion of the space in the chest cavity (and hence of the lungs) than the diaphragm working on its own can produce. 

Let’s have a look at the structure in more detail...

At the front of the chest the ribs are joined to the breastbone with flexible cartilage. At the back they attach to the vertebrae of the spine with joints, which allow them to rotate up and down.  

Because of this flexibility, when the inter-costal muscles (which connect each rib to the next) contract, it causes the ribs to rise like bucket handles, thus further increasing the expansion of the lungs as we breathe in.  

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In normal breathing the elasticity of the rib cage means that little or no effort is needed on the out breath to return the rib cage to its former position and empty the lungs. Breathing out is essentially a letting go.

The diaphragm and ribs work together to allow us to utilise the full range of our lung capacity. But in order for that mechanism to work properly it needs to be supported from below....

The Pelvic Floor and Muscles of the Abdomen

We’ve seen how the diaphragm contracts and descends when we breathe in. However the space into which it wants to descend is not empty! It’s full of the gut, liver, kidneys and other organs of the abdomen. 

These internal organs are not very compressible, so they need to be able to move down with the diaphragm to enable it to descend. They can do this because they are contained in an elastic muscular ‘basket’ made up the big sheets of muscles which wrap around the front and sides of the abdomen, and the pelvic floor.

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This muscular container gently lets go as we breathe in, allowing the contents of the abdomen to be displaced by the descending diaphragm and helping to regulate its movement. The muscles then offer support to the releasing diaphragm as we breathe out again. This support may either be very subtle and delicate (as it should be in normal breathing) or more forceful when we need to blow out under pressure (for example playing a wind instrument).  

This process is why your belly moves in and out as you breathe. It not only allows the descent of the diaphragm but, just as importantly, supports and helps to regulate the structures above — and consequently the whole breathing process. The pelvic floor and the diaphragm have a particularly intimate relationship. They are connected at a fundamental neurological level. When one contracts the other releases, and vice versa. This means that unnecessary tension in the pelvic floor will always have a knock on effect on the diaphragm and limit and constrict the whole breathing mechanism.

It’s important to note that when all is working as it should the activities described above are automatic. Generally we don’t need to be controlling them, we just need to allow them to function as nature intended. However we often get into (usually unconscious) habits of interfering with the breath. This is when things can go wrong, and it can cause problems with posture, energy, tension, and emotional expression.

In the next part of this series we will be looking at what happens higher up in the throat and head to regulate the airflow and allow it to be used for vocalising and to support our structure.

<<Part 1                Part 3>>

The Breath of Life (part 1)

Can we agree that, for human beings, breath is pretty fundamental?! It’s with us from shortly after our birth until the moment we die, and it’s inextricably linked both to our survival and to our quality of life — and to our capacity for feeling, thought and expression. Every emotional response we have is reflected to a greater or lesser extent in our breath. Additionally we use the breath to express thoughts and feelings through our voice, and when the breath is held or fixed this ability becomes limited in both subtle and obvious ways. And because the muscles of respiration are so much a part of the structure of the torso, when we hold on with them unnecessarily we introduce tension into the rest of our musculoskeletal system which has to brace in compensation.

Breath can be experienced as both simple and highly complex. What could be simpler and more natural than taking a breath? And yet the more we go into it the more we realise how intricate it is. When the breath is functioning as it should the diaphragm, ribs, soft palate, belly, viscera and pelvic floor are all involved. And because these structures are all moveable, and are also involved in supporting the structure of the torso which in turn integrates with the rest of the body, it’s not an exaggeration to say that the whole organism is involved in every breath we take. This involvement can either be a gentle and flexible support, or it can be a rigid containment but, either way, the breath is continually and fundamentally linked to qualities of tone, balance and emotion expressed in the organism as a whole.

One reason why working with the breath is particularly helpful to anyone wanting to be more free, open and expressive in themselves, is that it is the one place where the autonomic nervous system (which controls automatic functions like heartbeat, breathing and digestion) and the voluntary nervous system meet. So long as I am alive I will continue to breathe, and this will happen spontaneously whether I want to or not. But I also have the power to control my breath myself to a significant extent. I can choose to interrupt my breathing for a while, to speed it up, slow it down, maker it deeper or shallower. I can choose to prioritise different parts of the breathing mechanism — for example I can breathe more with the diaphragm, or more with the ribs. I can choose to breathe through the nose or the mouth or both together or alternately.

This ability to override the autonomic nervous system and control the breath ourselves evolved for good reasons. We might need to swim under water, or to freeze to avoid a predator, or to hear subtle details in our environment more clearly. In addition, higher order vocal communication such as talking, singing and chanting, requires us to make higher level choices about how and when to breathe. All this is good and necessary but, as with every thing we do, whenever our higher level control systems get involved (the  separate ’you’ in your head that thinks it knows what it is doing) it is easy to fall into over controlling. This is exactly what many of us do with our breath, so that over time it becomes more and more constrained and less free. Rather than a delicate, spontaneous, full, supported, pulse-like ‘happening’ it becomes tight, constricted, limited, partial and constrained.

Because breathing involves continual movement which is both automatic and able to be controlled, it is a wonderful ‘laboratory’ to explore how we interfere with our deeper level functions, and to learn to let go and allow them to work as they should. Breath is there all the time wanting to delicately do its thing, so it gives us an ideal opportunity to notice how we get over-involved, and to discover whether we can allow things within us to happen more spontaneously.

In my next couple of posts I’m going to go deeper into how breathing works, and look at ways we can start to let go of unnecessary control and allow it to regain its full functioning. In the meantime, you could try just being more aware of your breath as you go about your day. How do you experience it? Where does it feel held and where does it feel free? What emotions are linked to it for you?

[click here to continue to part 2 of this series: the Anatomy of Breathing]

Here are a couple of books I recommend if you interested in going into this further yourself. The first is more general, the second is written particularly from a yoga perspective.

By Donna Farhi
By Sandra Sabatini

The Empty Saddle

Recently (and rather to my surprise) horses have become part of my life. This has turned out to be an unexpectedly wonderful thing for several reasons beyond the obvious one that they are fascinating characters and endlessly amusing companions. In particularly I have discovered, like many before me, that horses are very accurate mirrors. They are completely honest in their responses: if we care to listen they show us with great clarity what we are doing that we might not wish to be aware of — and what they think of us and our behaviour! In addition they offer a great way to work with principles such as intention, allowing and saying ‘no’. It’s not a coincidence that many Alexander Technique teachers ride, and that the Technique is well known and valued among open-minded horse people. 

Here are a few important things that I think we can learn from being around horses:

1. Balance matters. As a child and young man I was a bit of a ‘klutz’, being somewhat dyspraxic and poorly co-ordinated. Several things I have done over the years have helped to resolve this (the Alexander Technique, of course, and also primitive reflex work) so it was a revelation to get on a horse for the first time in 35 years and to feel immediately comfortable there, rather than experiencing the noble beast as a wretched and precarious perch! Instead of fighting to stay on I was responding freely to the movement. I felt very much at home. The ability to balance openly and freely in an upright posture is one of the most fundamental things to differentiate humans from other animals. The evolutionary development of this ability left our arms—and hence our hands—completely free; balance was therefore a pre-requisite for the development of human culture, and for all the achievements (and problems) which have followed. For many of us in the modern world this sense of balance has atrophied — often to an extent we may not be aware of. This is a pity because being able to balance well—even in the mundane activities of life—gives us an inner feeling of safety, frees our limbs up for activity, and opens the door to unexpected experiences.

2. It’s important to take care of yourself. You don’t need to be around horsey people for long before you realise that many of them pay a high price for their passion! Riding horses is very physical and places a lot of demands on the body (even before we factor in the after-effects of falling off!). These demands need to be met with intelligence and consciousness if we are not to end up with pain and muscular skeletal problems. This sort of deterioration can be exacerbated by old-fashioned teaching methods which encourage what could be called 'fake good posture'. This is where we hold on and tighten to hold ourselves in what looks like a 'correct' position, rather than releasing to allow our innate postural support system to function as it should. When we learn to let go and be supported, rather than frantically trying to create support through holding on, we find that not only are we less likely to experience constant low level aches and pains, or liable to injure ourselves (though that’s always a risk with horses!) but we also become more ‘in tune’ and responsive to the horse. Excess muscular tension acts as a barrier between horse and human (in the same way as it does in human to human interaction). It limits not just our physical, but also our emotional, responsiveness. Almost literally it builds a wall between ourselves and the rest of the world.

3. Honesty is the best policy. Horses don’t lie! They are always expressing one hundred percent who they are in any given moment. They don’t play games or hide their true nature like humans often do. Of course sometimes when we are dealing with the complexity of human life it is appropriate and necessary for us to exercise discretion in how, what and where we express, and when we forget this we may be unintentionally destructive to ourselves or to others. But horses can remind us that to be healthy and happy we always need to come back to where and what we truly are, to be ourselves in the present, and allow what is there to flow freely again. 

4. Magic happens in the space between clarity of intention and letting go. If we want to live with a feeling of grace and effortlessness we need an intelligent intention or image of what we are trying to achieve (meaning one that is in accord with our structure and design), coupled with the ability to get out of our own way. Our body-mind can manifest a deep intelligence which, given a chance will organise things with far greater subtlety and skill than we (by which I mean the ‘little I’ sitting in our head working the controls) can ever hope to achieve by our own efforts. When we  learn to get out of the way of this deep intelligence, and allow it to carry out our well-conceived intentions, everything flows with freedom, balance and poise. 

Horses are great at teaching us about this. Because they don’t lie they reflect back to us what we are doing and who we are in any given moment. If we tense up and become aimlessly controlling, they tense up too and become discombobulated. If we try to force things rather than directing the flow of what’s happening they push back. If we have unclear or contradictory intentions they will not be able to do what we want and will do what we are actually (unconsciously) asking of them. So working with horses we are really working with ourselves, discovering how we get in our own way, and how to get out of it again. If we approach being with a horse in this spirit we start to become better at saying ‘no’ to the wish to respond to challenging situations with holding rather than release. We become wiser and clearer in our intentions. And in time we might find that our intentions themselves begin to arise less from the ‘little I’ and more and more from the place of deep intelligence within us. But that’s another story….

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Games to Improve your Balance

How good is your sense of balance? Many of us are so caught up with adult responsibilities that we no longer find time to move in a playful and exploratory way as we used to when we were younger. As a result our ability to balance can become compromised to an extent which may be a bit shocking once we start to experiment with it again!

The Alexander Technique aims to restore the body’s natural postural and support systems to their proper functioning. Because these systems all rely to some extent on our sense of balance, I encourage my pupils (and anyone else who will listen!) to play balance games of one sort or another.  As well as honing our sense of balance this also encourages our postural muscles to work harder, which tones and activates our ‘core’ in a fun and natural way without need for special exercises. In addition, balance games are a great way to play with ‘letting go’ and ‘allowing things to happen’. When we feel out of balance and are in fear of falling we tend to tense up. However this doesn’t help us—and is in fact MORE likely to make us fall. Playing balance games is a great way to learn to withhold consent to the habit of tightening in the face of stress. Finding this ability to stay calm and open in response to worry is a key part of the Alexander Technique (and of living well in general) so these sorts of activities can really speed up the process of learning and applying the technique in our lives.

Photo by Digital Vision./DigitalVision / Getty Images

Below are some activities you can undertake to help develop your sense of balance. The majority of these require you to purchase some simple items. However this is an investment which will be well worth it in terms of enjoyment, and the improvement in overall health and functioning that is likely to result. Obviously there is some risk involved in any balance activity, so exercise common sense and make sure you are attempting an activity that is a sensible match for your current fitness level and abilities!

Note: I have pictured some specific products in this article as examples, but I am not really recommending one brand over another—most of the items are available from several different companies and I suggest you shop around. 

1) Simple balance games and exercises

If it is a while since you have played around with your sense of balance you might be shocked at how much it has atrophied while you have been thinking of other things! Try standing on one leg. Easy? Then try doing the same with your eyes closed. The eyes are an important source of information for the balance system so when we remove them it forces other parts of the system—for example the vestibular canals and the proprioceptors—to play a larger role. Now try walking along a straight line placing your feet one in front of the other. Again if that is easy try it again with your eyes closed. If your balance is rusty then doing simple exercises like these every day for a few weeks will help to start tuning it up again.

When you start looking there are all sorts of everyday possibilities to further improve and practice your balance. Even a walk in the woods or the local park can give lots of opportunities to let your inner child out to play and to reconnect with skills of balancing and movement you may have forgotten! 

Photo by aetb/iStock / Getty Images

2) Balance boards

Taking things a step further, there are several types of balance board which can be used to take your balance practice to the next level. One of the simplest types is a round board on a semi-spherical rocker. These are widely used for injury rehabilitation so are available in various sizes and levels of difficulty. N.B. these put a lot of pressure on the point where the ball meets the floor and they may damage wooden floors, so be careful!

Moving up a notch we have several types of board which are free to move in multiple ways at once. The simplest ones involve a roller. These can be quite tricky to begin with, and there is a danger of the board suddenly flipping out from under your feet and sending you flying. For this reason it is important to make sure you practice with clear space around you so that if you fall you won’t hit anything! It’s also a good idea to have something solid to hold onto at about waist height until you gain confidence. If necessary you can slow things down by beginning on a carpeted floor before graduating to a solid surface.

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The next step up from roller boards are boards which balance on a ball. These have a recess underneath which helps to limit the ball’s movement and makes it less likely that it will fly out. They can look a bit daunting, but they are not as difficult in practice as you might expect and they are more flexible and fun than the roller boards. My favourite is the ‘CoolBoard’ (see the video below).

The most difficult part in learning to use these is getting balanced on the ball in the first place. Once you are up there it is  not too hard to stay up, especially if you choose one of the smaller and ‘slower’ balls to start with. For most people a few minutes practice a day for a couple of weeks will have them easily up onto the ball and moving about quite confidently.

3) Slacklines and Tightropes

These are great fun if you have the space. It is possible to get small tight-rope setups to use at home, however they tend to be expensive and unwieldy.

As an alternative I suggest using a slackline, which is much cheaper and easier to set up (see my article on slacklining and the Alexander Technique here). As well as being more convenient, slacklines can also be more fun than tightropes. The bounciness of the line is an added challenge, and is addictive. It also allows the more adventurous to learn tricks. 

If you have access to two reasonably substantial trees you can set up a simple line between them. If you don’t have trees but you have some space outside there are various ways of setting up a line with—anchors and A frames. This takes a bit of work but will give you a long lasting set up.  You can find instructions on how to do this here.

Finally there are setups which allow you to have a small line indoors without too much expense. These are a little shorter than is ideal, but still allow you to play around if space is limited or it is too cold to be outside.

4) Other Balance-Oriented Activities

Of course if you have the time and opportunity there are many sports and activities in which balance plays a key role. Horse-riding, surfing and windsurfing, and circus activities like unicycles etc. all help to tone the balance system and keep you fit in a fun way. 

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Any of the above activities should make a noticeable improvement to your balance and quality of life if undertaken regularly. A few minutes every day is better than a splurge once a week! With this sort of routine even activities which seemed impossible at the beginning can be mastered fairly quickly. Have fun!