Category Archives: Habits

40 A Leaning Nation

sketch of tower of pisaI observe people. A lot.

I have always enjoyed people watching, even as a young child. As an Alexander teacher I am trained in the art of observation of self (and others). So, it’s hard not to observe people. Occupational hazard, I guess.

Some students ask me when I am out in public, if I am constantly judging people’s posture and Use. I’d say I am more of a curious observer than a critic. I wonder a lot at what people do with themselves and why. People and their Use are an endless source of fascination for me.

One thing that I have observed a lot recently is how most people don’t stand on their own two feet. Instead they lean.

couple leaning on luggage

Fig A: we can come up with an endless variety of ways of leaning on things!

They lean on anything they can. Walls, partitions, countertops, luggage, tables and chairs. And if there is nothing to lean on, they lean on themselves.

woman standing with weight in left hip

Fig B: a common habit of leaning on yourself-collapsing down into one hip.

 

woman standing next to broken down car

Fig C: another common habit of leaning on yourself-leaning back and sitting down into your lower back.

I have my own hypotheses about why this is so. One is that as adults when we sit, which most of us do most of the time, we don’t practice sitting upright and balanced, supporting our own torsos. When we sit down, we lean back against the back of the chair, or lean to the right or to the left supporting ourselves on an armrest.

Because we spend so many hours sitting and leaning we take the same leaning behavior into standing as well.

We get good at what we practice.

I go to a local Chipotle restaurant about once a month. I have been to a many Chipotle restaurants over last few years. Like most chains, the interior of the restaurants are quite similar. And in this chain they tend to have a low wall, about 3 ½ feet in height that people snake around as they wait in line.

What I enjoy a lot about going to Chipotle (besides the food) is watching how people wait in line. I’d say most of the time about 75% of the people are leaning against that low wall in some way or another. And the variations of leaning seem endless. And some are quite creative! The remaining 25% that are not leaning on the wall are leaning into one hip or the other, or are standing with their knees locked, pelvis thrust forward and literally are leaning back and down onto their lower backs.

Observing others is often helpful when learning to observe yourself. Watch how other people stand. What percentage are leaning on objects or on themselves? How do they lean? Do you observe any of these habits in yourself?

Picture Credits: Image of Leaning Tower of Pisa courtesy of TeddyBear[Picnic] at FreeDigitalPhotos.net; Fig A: Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net; Fig B: Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net; Fig C: Image courtesy of Witthaya Phonsawat at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

39 Use, Posture and Reaction

To a large degree your Use (and your posture) is a habit.

Habit is a pattern of behavior (or reaction) triggered by a cue.

As a human, you are a reactive being. Basically you go through life reacting to your world.
This is a good thing. Being a reactive being means that when you step off the sidewalk to cross the street and a car suddenly appears you react (typically by stopping). I think you would agree is this is a good thing. Otherwise you wouldn’t be long for this world!

That a lot of your habitual reactions are just that, habitual, is also a good thing. Habits are dealt with by lower levels of your brain. This allows you to not constantly be thinking about basic behaviors, such as how to tie your shoe, so you can devote mental energy to invent things, solve problems, plan for your future, etc.

But…and of course there is a but….we have developed a lot of habitual ways of reacting that play havoc with our Use (and posture).

What you see as your physical posture is to a large extent a manifestation of how you have habitually reacted to your world over time.

An important concept to grasp as you explore your habitual patterns of Use (and posture) and how to change them is that you can have choice in how you react to a particular cue.

Starting to recognize a specific cue and your unique reaction to that cue is the first step in making change. Once you recognize the cue you can decide to explore a different reaction. Let me give you an example:

therapist listening to a patient

A typical way of using yourself when you are intently listening to another–torso pulled forward and compressed, head pulled back and down. It doesn’t have to be this way!

Over the years I have worked with a number of  therapists. Therapists typically meet with their clients one on one, usually sitting across from each other. The client sitting across from the therapist is a cue for the therapist’s listening reaction to kick in. A lot of the therapists I see have developed a habit of reacting to the client by subtly leaning forward, rounding (compressing) their spines and pulling the head back and down—all in an attempt to listen to their client.

However, because they spend many hours a day in this typical reaction pattern it adds up. They wonder why they have rounded shoulders and a tight neck.

When they look at the situation as an example of how they are reacting to a cue (the client) and are introduced to the fact that they can have choice in how they react some change can take place.

They might realize that they can (literally) come up and back away from the client a bit, finding the back of their chair (and maybe place a large pillow behind it to support them).

It might feel wrong at first because it is not their typical pattern of Use in this situation. They may feel that they are not showing the client adequately that they are listening or even care. What they must realize is that they are just experiencing a different reaction. Simply because it is not familiar it may register as “wrong”.

So instead of teaching a student to sit up straight I help them understand that they can have more choice in how they react to their world. That way they can begin to find their own cues and experiment with making some conscious choices in their reactions.

Most of us feel like we go through our day making a ton of well-considered decisions, when in fact they are habits. One habit may not account for much, but added up over time have enormous impacts on our health, productivity, Use (and posture!)

Photo courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

36 Comfortable or Familiar?

woman sleeping on her sideI’ve been conducting an experiment for the past month.

For years I slept on all four sides. I slept on my back, right side, left side and front. Sometimes for a time I would have a preference for one of the four sides. Sometimes I would rotate through all of them in the course of one night.

I decided for the past month to sleep only on my back or on my front.

What I noticed from day one is that my shoulders feel much better each morning when I wake up. They don’t feel the least bit stiff, which is how they normally feel. That in itself is enough for me to continue with the experiment.

What has been most interesting though to observe is the strong desire in me to roll onto my side–even though lying on my side has never been completely pain free for me. Even if I have enough pillows to support my head and neck the shoulder toward the bed is always compressed somewhat and just a little bit painful. But the slightly curled up fetal position I adopt when on my side is very familiar and the comfort that familiarity provided would win out over the slight discomfort I felt in the shoulder.

Your posture is to a great extent habit. Habits are familiar. When you are familiar with something it is comfortable. But not necessarily comfortable as we traditionally define it: affording physical ease or relaxation. Comfortable because it is known and not something new. An important distinction.

For me it is more comfortable to get together with old friends than to go to a party where I don’t know many people. Humans tend to resist change. What’s known (the old friends) is familiar and therefore comfortable. Something (or somebody) new is unfamiliar and therefore uncomfortable (at least until you get to know them).

Often a student experimenting with a new way of balancing her weight in sitting or standing will comment that her old way is more comfortable than the new way—even though the old way is compressing her low back and causing pain. This is just one more example of the same phenomenon of describing something familiar as comfortable.

man crossing his armsTry this experiment: cross your arms in front of you. Notice how this feels. Cross your arms the opposite way (so if your right arm was on top originally, put your left arm on top and vice versa). Notice how this feels.

Typically the way you cross your arms first will be your habitual way and it will feel comfortable (because it is familiar). The second way will not be your habitual way and it will feel uncomfortable (because it is unfamiliar). You can do this same experiment with crossing your legs as well.

One of the reasons that making changes to your posture is challenging is that we feel this strong pull back towards the familiar. New ways of doing things at first feel uncomfortable (meaning unfamiliar).

Understanding this fact is important. And also realizing that the more you practice the more familiar new habits will become and consequently the more comfortable.

Photo of woman sleeping courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Photo of man crossing his arms courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

28 New Year New Habit

Picture1This is the time of year that many of us make New Year’s Resolutions. Often our resolutions are a desire to establish new healthy habits—“I’ll start working out 6 days a week” or “I’m going to eat less sugar” or “I’m going to make Alexander Technique Constructive Rest a 20 minute practice every day—starting today!”

More often than not we don’t succeed with our resolutions. We fail so often that it is the butt of many jokes.

I am not suggesting that you give up on your resolutions. Instead ask yourself “are my expectations for change reasonable?” As human beings, we tend to resist change, however beneficial it may be for us. Too big a change and we tend to rebel. Over the years I have found that very small changes, however insignificant they may seem at first, produce the best results over time. So look at your original resolution and break it down into really small, manageable and achievable goals.

When you break a larger goal down into smaller goals that you can easily achieve you will feel good about yourself and be more likely to continue working toward the larger goal.

One of the first things I teach all of my students to do on their own is the Alexander Technique Constructive Rest practice. It is a very simple way to rest your back, decompress your spine and generally release unnecessary tension in your body.

The goal is to ultimately make this a 20 minute practice every day.

For many students if they start off the first week with the goal that they are going to do their Constructive Rest practice for 20 minutes a day, every day, most very quickly give up on it.

The everyday aspect of this practice is the most important and what I suggest they work on first.

So, a better approach for many students is to break it down and start with a more reasonable and achievable goal of 5 minutes a day, every day. I suggest they do this for a few weeks. At that point they can try a goal of 10 minutes a day, every day for a few more weeks. After that they can try a goal of 15 minutes a day, every day for the next few weeks. Finally they can make their final goal 20 minutes a day, every day.

Proceeding in this manner means it may take you a few months to make the 20 minutes a day, every day, a habit. However, if you look at Constructive Rest as something that you can do to help take care of yourself for the rest of your life, a few months in the overall scheme of things is not a long time.

If you are new to the Constructive Rest practice I recommend this 15 minute podcast interview between two experienced Alexander Teachers.