Whilst researching keywords to help my website rank well in search engines, I discovered that one of the most searched for phrases is "Alexander Technique exercises". This must be very frustrating for those who are doing the searching, as any Alexander Teacher will tell you, there's no such thing as an Alexander Technique exercise! The word exercise implies something you do, the problem being that you'll filter any instruction through your current filter of the way you habitually move so you may not do exactly as asked. To do something new, you effectively have to stop doing! Take a moment to let that sink in. The Alexander Technique applies to any activity, whether it's sitting, standing, running, doing yoga, playing a musical instrument, you name it and Alexander can be applied to it. It's more about the way that you do it, the quality you bring to it, rather than the activity itself. That said, if we swap the word "exercise" for "exploration" then we're on the right path and I can let my professional pedantry remain intact.
My colleague Mark Claireaux making constructive rest look much more glamorous than I do on my living room floor. Picture used with permission.
So, the most common Alexander "exercise" is known as semi-supine, or constructive rest (I prefer the latter name) and essentially consists of lying down, pretty easy, eh?! The specifics are that you lie on your back with your knees raised pointing upwards (as this takes pressure off the lower back), feet flat on the floor and your head raised/supported by something firm, typically a book. If you were to stand with your back to a wall you'll notice that your head does not actually touch the wall, and this is normal. That is why your head needs to be supported when lying down on your back as gravity naturally pulls the head back towards the floor and this puts undue strain on your neck. We're all different shapes and sizes which is why it's common to use a book (or several books, but yoga blocks work nicely too) as it's easier to find the right height of support for you with a little trial and error. If in doubt, it's better for the support to be a little high than too low. The reason that a cushion isn't suitable is that it's harder for your neck muscles to fully release as your head never feels fully supported by a soft base. Another thing to be aware of is that your head is rotated forward in relation to the neck, just as in standing and described in greater detail in this previous article.
Lying like this is a good neutral position to allow your spine to release into gravity and give yourself the opportunity to become aware of muscle tension and allow yourself to release it. It's an embodied mindfulness exercise that gives you the opportunity to explore the quality of your mind and how that affects your body. It's also worth noting that if you were flipped 90 degrees into vertical, it's the same great neutral alignment for sitting and standing, although your postural muscles/reflexes would have to kick back into gear.
Now, the one thing you want to avoid is introspection, that is, to mentally go inside your body or get stuck in your head. Keep your awareness wide and out into the room. Even being aware of the space between your fingers and toes can be helpful. The more awareness you have of the space around you the better you can physically release out into it, as opposed to the contraction inwards many of us hold. That's not to say you shouldn't have an internal awareness, just not at the expense of your wider awareness.
And don't be surprised if you actually find doing as little as possible quite difficult. We're all quite fidgety and impatient these days, that's what we're up against when we use constructive rest to neutralize that.
There's a couple of simple variations you might like to try. For space considerations it's usual to place the hands on the abdomen, but if you have room it's really nice to spread your arms out to your sides, palms facing up. It's a great way to open up the front of the chest, especially if you've been hunched over your computer all day.
The other option, especially if you feel like your legs want to flop to one side and you're struggling to balance them, is to rest the lower legs up on a chair or bed. This one is great for really letting the lower back release.
When it's time to get up, roll on to your side first.
One caveat, if you're in your second trimester and beyond of pregnancy then lying on your is often not recommended as the womb can press on the vena cava blood vessel. It's the blood vessel that carries de-oxygenated blood back to the heart and restricting it can leave you feeling faint.
It's common to lie like this during an Alexander lesson, whilst a teacher works with you to help you release tension, but it's also just great thing to do for yourself between lessons and as an ongoing practice. And if someone starts to bother you whilst you're doing it, point out to them that you're busy, doctors orders!
So, time for a five day challenge, why not spend 15 minutes each day when you get home from work doing some constructive rest and report back on what you have discovered and how it has helped you.
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.alexandertechnique.co.uk