“The Alexander Technique will benefit anyone whether they are an elite athlete or whether they just wish to live life without the aches and pains that many people suffer and accept as part of life. It is a pity that these techniques are not shown to us all at an early age for I have no doubt that this would alleviate many of the causes of ill health in our communities.” — Greg Chapell, Australian Cricketer
Many people take up sports to improve their health and fitness. Others take up sport for passion and competition. Having an efficient and healthy body is essential in sport to improve health or be effective in competition. If we are using our bodies inefficiently, we can hurt our bodies, which interrupts our ability to move, dance or play sport.
FM Alexander discovered that what he was doing was interfering with his natural coordination and the laws of movement. Is there something getting in the way of your running, or golf stroke, or tennis game?
Refining your technique and connecting the power of your mind to your intended action is a super power. The Alexander Technique is a skill to use when pressures are rising in competition. More importantly, it is a skill that allows understanding of the minute movements and thoughts that allow for efficient and graceful coordination. The Alexander Technique offers choices and flexibility that you don’t know you have.
Tommy Thompson relates his work with USA World Championship Rowing Crew in 1976:
Although each team member rows in concert with the other members, the team members must be approached individually. And, with exceptions, there are two basic moments where inhibition works most effectively to improve both speed and effectiveness in the strength of the rower’s glide through a single stroke in the water.
At the beginning of a single stroke individually and in unison, the rowers move forward from a seated and semi crouched position from the back of the boat towards the front of the boat. Stretched fully forward they then connect the oar with the resistance of the water and with their full strength throughout their body they pull the oars backwards towards their chest.
At the onset of this movement forward there is a driving effort to move as fast as possible towards the completion of the movement forward before the oars connect with the water because it is this stroke and many afterwards that sends their boat forward towards a winning time. And in this moment there is inevitably a classic” postural set” which proceeds and accompanies their movement. This “set” translates as a dorsiflection backward and downwards of their heads and necks. The movement mimics the neuromuscular pattern associated with the startle reflex where there is a simultaneous contraction of the sternocleidomastoid and trapezius muscles. The head is pulled backward and down and there is simultaneous and corresponding contraction throughout the body. In this position relative to what they attempt to accomplish their strength, speed and reflexive response is compromised.
When I applied an inhibitive pressure to their heads around the sub occipital muscles and at the mastoid process and sustained the length of their necks; and consequently a neuromuscular integrative response throughout the rest of their bodies relative to their strokes as they moved forward in space and time there was more length and expansion throughout their bodies, along with increased speed and available strength to row.
Once the oar met the resistance of the water the stroke backward in preparation for the next stroke; less strength was lost as they lengthened from feet to head. And They were measurably faster. Their heads both freer and higher and their attention was far more focused in front where their race belonged.
Conversely at the conclusion of their movement forward in preparation for their next stroke, as they began their movement backwards in the boat, subsequent to executing the actual stroke, they exhibited the exact same postural set along with the same compromising consequences. Only this time they moved backwards from their crouched sitting posture to position themselves to move forward once again for another stroke. Once again their habit was to bring their head backward and downward– both going forwards to set their stroke, then moving backwards to execute the stroke.
These postural sets that preceded the beginnings and the conclusions of each stroke once brought to the rowers’ awareness proved to be enormously valuable to their performance once they were able through experiential guidance to inhibit their habituation.
The new experience through guided movement was essential to convince the rowers that their performance could be substantially enhanced and actually improved. Once they focused on their insight born from that new experience they had a greater understanding that the way they used themselves to accomplish what they wanted was as important as simply trying to win. This was understood best by those athletes who were less inclined to equate winning with extreme exertion of effort and energy. For the space between preparation of the stroke and the execution is a journey without distance.
Note: “postural set” is a term used by Frank Pierce Jones when describing a person’s habitual onset.
Through study of the Alexander Technique, equestrians can learn to reduce unnecessary tension when they ride. Students become more aware of how they are using their bodies as tools to communicate with their horses, and of how patterns of tension in their own bodies transfer to their horses.
Have you thought about your horses spine? We Humans have the same balancing system as every vertebrate. By learning how to consciously speaking to it while staying aware, we become one with our horse and the action we want to take.
With this new awareness, release of tension and new way of thinking, the communication becomes less effortful and therefore more enjoyable and more effective: rider and horse become more relaxed. Pain from specific medical conditions that are caused or exacerbated by undue muscular tension (e.g. carpel tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, back pain or knee pain) can be reduced or removed altogether. Too much muscle tension always means that weight is not processed in a good way to the back of the horse and therefore to the ground.
The ideal “position” in the saddle is sitting with your ear, shoulder, hip and heel in a dynamic vertical line. Forcing your heel down, or letting it float up with most of your weight on the ball of your foot will distort this line and unbalance you as well as the horse. Letting your weight fall down into your heels allows you to stay relaxed and lets your leg sit against your horse more comfortably, effectively and securely.
If you ski, snowboard, do martial arts or any other sports that require you to keep your centre of gravity low you will understand the necessity off letting your weight fall into your heels.
You can try standing in the ‘horse stance’:
Stand with your feet shoulder width or slightly wider and sink so that your knees are at about a 30 degree angle;
Shift your weight to the back of your feet and force your heel into the ground. Your upper body may react in moving backwards;
Now try to shift your weight onto the balls of your feet. You will probably find that you tip forward and stiffen in an natural attempt not to fall over. If you were on a horse, you probably will try to correct this by throwing your torso back and then using the reins for balance.
Either way, you can notice that your tension increases through your whole body. Recognize how your neck stiffens and you are holding up your head. If you were on a horse your horses reaction may be dramatic – you are not only throwing him out of balance and risking injury, but you are also hurting him as you pull on his reins.
Your back will become stiff and hollowed out.
Now come to a neutral position using your thinking: Allow yourself to see the world around you and tension in your neck and head to free so that your head can restore its balance in relation to the rest of the body. Find yourself not forcing your heels down and not on the ball of your foot but rather with feet like a fan letting the weight softly fall down to your heels. By shifting your weight back onto your heels you’ll probably feel much more stable and relaxed. When standing in a balanced way you will naturally be in the ear, shoulder, hip, heel alignment. This is not a fixed position.; it is dynamic.
All of this also will help for an overall comfort and a new relationship between equestrian and horse.
Performance anxiety can be lessened. Students are able to breathe more freely and ride for longer periods undue fatigue. The Alexander Technique is used by many of the top Olympic Equestrians (e.g. the USA Olympic Dressage team) and was an important influence on Sally Swift as she developed Centered Riding.