One of my students is recovering from an injury to her big toe that she sustained while dancing nearly 14 years ago. She had surgery and Physical Therapy and is still recovering in that she struggles to use the right and left sides of her body evenly while she moves. She is very aware of her body and senses that when she is working unevenly she has more tension in her body, that she isn’t able to think as clearly as she is otherwise able, and her entire mental/emotional state is affected by the imbalance.
Her big discovery in our lessons together came when she realized that much of the tension she has in her body is created in response to the anticipation of knee pain that sometime occurs. She tenses her body before moving because she is trying to “do something” to prevent the potential experience of pain. In other words, she makes a sudden contraction just before moving that prevents her from her easiest and most balanced movement. If left unresolved, this contraction accumulates into a more permanent state of tension in and throughout the body. Her compensations are now affecting her jaw by creating tension more on one side than the other.
When she was able to stop the moment of contraction she could feel her weight on the floor through the injured foot more clearly and she could direct her whole body, head-neck-back more easily. The knee pain that was caused by avoiding movement in the toe is eliminated.
This act or moment of anticipation and preparation was also clear with another student as he played the piano. His piano teacher has been talking to him for a while about letting his forearm soften and be freer while he plays. It turns out he has the same pattern. Just before he strikes the key he tightens his forearm and hands breaking the flow of energy and movement into the keys. When he stopped the tightening preparation the sound he was making changed immediately. His fingers were more articulate and he could feel his weight on the piano bench.
We often think we need to “do” something extra or use more force to “make” a movement occur. Certainly some movements and activities take more force than other activities. When we don’t anticipate what is needed we allow ourselves to accommodate to the needs of the action rather than decide beforehand what might be needed.
Eiko Kanamoto, who trained in the Alexander Technique here at the Balance Arts Center and now teaches in Tokyo) used to talk about this as going from neutral into an action; “neutral” meaning the state of being when your “motor” is already running with an easy flow of directions. This allows you to move from one action to another, or one gesture to another, speeding up or slowing down without turning off your engine in between (in other words not collapsing or tightening between movements). Starting a movement from an already free and directed flow of movement allows one to continue directing smoothly through to the next activity. This way you can pick up the necessary speed and effort along the way WITHOUT jumping into the next gear before the action happens. You might end up in 4th gear if you are lifting a cement block for instance (we practice this in the training class) and you arrive there “as needed” in responses to the weight of the block.
The moment of tightening before we do an action can go by really quickly if we aren’t paying close attention. It goes by even more quickly if we have jumped ahead to the end of the activity (Alexander calls this end-gaining) in our minds and bypass the process of how we are getting there.
Look at the cement block in the photo with this blog entry.
• Imagine yourself picking it up.
• Notice what your body does even as you imagine the activity.
• Now imagine picking up the block and staying in “neutral” as long as possible.
Notice how little force and preparation you can use when doing the following activities. Notice if you are anticipating the action and see if you can bypass that moment of doing something extra.
• As you strike the computer keys.
• As you begin to get out of a chair.
• As you start to say something to someone.
• As you put your foot on the gas pedal.
• As you lift a bag of groceries.