THE BLOG

Use Your Head! How to Reduce Your Back Pain at Work

10/09/2015 11:10 BST | Updated 09/09/2016 10:12 BST

If you read my previous post you'd be forgiven for thinking that the Alexander Technique is all about body mechanics. The way you use yourself certainly includes body mechanics, but you are much more than just your body, there's a whole mental/emotional component that makes up who you are and how you use yourself. It is common these days to talk of the mind-body connection, but the Alexander Technique likes to take this a step further and even consider that there is no connection, as that would imply a separation of the two requiring a bridge between them. A more holistic view is that the mind and body are one and the same, acting as a functional whole, that you are totally indivisible as a person, what Alexander liked to call psychophysical unity.

So, despite popular conceptions of the Alexander Technique, we teachers really aren't the posture police, as what goes on in the mind is equally important, and posture really could be said to be a reflection of the mind. Mindfulness is all the rage these days and it wouldn't be a stretch to think of this work as being embodied mindfulness.

Good posture isn't something you do, it's the by-product of not pulling yourself out of natural balance/alignment. It is bad posture that is caused by doing. Evolution has left us with postural reflexes that work just fine if we don't interfere with them. But why do you pull ourselves away from poise and ease?

I like to work from a stimulus and response model, where a stimulus can come from within (ideas, beliefs, emotions) or externally. You can often tell someone's mood by their body language, but for now I want to draw attention to the way we deal with external stimuli.

Alexander Technique, posture and back pain

                          Image used with permission from Victoria Stanham.

The simple fact is, you physically follow your attention. Where is your attention right now? As you are reading this it is no doubt going into your computer screen, tablet or smart phone, and low and behold, you've poked your head forward. The situation gets worse once you start to type as your attention also goes to the keyboard, you slump towards it and pull the shoulders forward, rounding the upper back.

This situation is compounded by the way we react to stress. You've probably heard of the startle response, when you freeze at the sound of a loud noise for example. But you don't just freeze, just before you do you will have also pulled your shoulders up and your head back and down. When we are stressed we have a tendency to do the same, add that to craning your head forward, following your line of attention and you have a double whammy. Either one on it's own causes what we in the Alexander world would call a position of mechanical disadvantage. Remember, your head weighs as much as a bowling ball, and if it's not nicely balanced on top of your spine that is a lot of weight for your neck, shoulder and back muscles to have to support. Is it any wonder that they start to ache! And our reaction to stress is a mental game, you can see why I like the idea of embodied mindfulness now.

The solution then, when sat at your computer, or using your smart phone, is to widen your awareness so that you become more aware of the space around you. It is useful to become aware of the space above you so that you naturally want to release/lengthen your spine in this direction. And to negate the draw of the computer screen and keyboard it is specifically useful to be aware of the space behind you, centre yourself between the space behind you and your computer (or phone etc). It is also beneficial to become more aware of your peripheral vision. The more you do it, the easier it becomes until it becomes a new habit. One thing you don't want to do is to tuck your chin under, despite this often being suggested. The solution to a problem is not to do the opposite, a common but unhelpful response, but to prevent the thing that's causing the problem, otherwise you are replacing one bad habit with another. Tucking your chin in takes muscular effort, rest assured this will lead to tension.

So, to recap, poor posture when sat at your computer (or using your smart phone) isn't down to gravity, poor ergonomics or a by product of ageing, it is due to a narrowing of your attention so that you lose awareness of yourself. Our entire cultural education system encourages, glorifies even, concentration, but that's throwing the baby out with the bath water. So it's ironic that the only thing that's actually doing anything is the only thing you may not be paying any attention to!

In addition, you may also bring a host of other habitual tension patterns that you will engage regardless of the activity you are performing. Either way, an Alexander teacher can help you become aware and let go of all the things that are holding back your performance. Yes, it's not only actors and musicians who perform, we all perform our daily tasks, don't let them be a chore, bring some life and quality to them. Some bloke called Will once said "all the world's a stage". And the great Carlos Santana (guitarist) said "God made the world round so we can all have centre stage", what a wonderful sentiment. Find your centre and don't let the stimulus of modern gizmos pull you out of it.

I want to leave you with a quote from the wonderful Alexander teacher Bruce Fertman:

"The Alexander Technique is not about how we do what we do. It's about how we are being when we do what we do."

This blog was originally posted here.

The Alexander Technique has been clinically proven for back pain via an NHS funded, gold standard randomised trial. It was performed by Southampton University and their results were published in the British Medical Journal.

It is also endorsed by Backcare.org.uk, a lottery funded organisation.

World wide resource for the Society of Teachers of The Alexander Technique: www.stat.org.uk