Some time ago I realised that there was one important factor that my favourite dancers had that I lacked: a sense of effortless control or natural relaxedness to all their movements. Over the years I became experienced in creating high tension through heavy squats, deadlifts and gymnastics strength training among other things, but what I had neglected all this time was to learn to let go.
I used to believe that I simply wasn’t flexible or mobile enough, and while having greater mobility would allow me to make what are in my mind more pleasing shapes and transitions, mobility represents only part of the equation for movement potential, not quality. By “quality” I am not referring to good or bad in the sense of range or restriction, but to the way in which the movement occurs and appears. Is it smooth or deliberately jerky? Is it controlled or sloppy? Precise or random?
So if inflexibility or restricted mobility was only part of my particular puzzle, where were the other parts to be found? A clue perhaps lay hidden in my medical history, and more pertinently, in my current state of health.
In early 2011 while still living in Finland I woke up one morning with my head violently spinning, so much so that it caused me to try and vomit up the contents of my empty stomach. I tried to sleep it off, but upon re-awakening I wasn’t any better. I spent the journey to the hospital retching into an empty bucket. The doctors suspected an inner-ear problem, but ultimately didn’t find the cause.
After returning to England I took a number of tests in order to determine the origins of my nausea and declining health, from scans to blood tests and was eventually fitted with a blood pressure monitor for 48 hours or so. It was eventually concluded that my dizzy spells and lethargy was due to high blood pressure, which in itself was rooted in stress and anxiety.
People around me seemed as surprised as I was. “You? Stressed?! No way!” But the symptoms spoke otherwise, and what was interesting to point out was the fact that stress is cumulative, not just suddenly arising from one day or even one month to the next. Unknowingly, I had been living with stress for some time, until one day my body decided that I needed a wake-up call in both the literal and metaphorical senses.
Since that day I have moved house no fewer than 7 times, worked a number of different jobs, including as a cook in a restaurant (probably the most stressful of them all!), followed by taking my ex-employer to court (and winning!), stopped dancing regularly, completely stopped and briefly re-started all types of training a number of times, and somewhere along the way I lost the momentum that I had gained from over 10 years of practising movement.
I had apparently 2 choices; either I took the blue pills designed to keep the blood pressure of elderly patients down, or I took the non-medicated option to see how deep the rabbit hole goes.
I decided not to get on that slippery, pill-popping slope and my condition improved. Later though, while now living in France, I acquired some new symptoms: random heart palpitations ,shortness of breath and chest tightness! My doctor suggested that I exercise, and so I began to wander barefoot, re-discovering the sense of freedom that can only come from leaving the house with empty pockets, and nothing but the few items of clothing I was dressed in. I explored, I climbed, I moved, and even built up my confidence to walk the bridges that crossed the river where I lived, on the outside walls, feeling the cold, rough stone beneath my bare feet. Looking back now I wonder how I managed to get to the point where I would only ever cross in this way.
I eventually began rings training again, but in the back of my mind there were more important things to be doing, and although I had acknowledged that not only was I stressed, but that my health, and therefore overcoming stress should be my priority, I never took the necessary steps to really do anything about it. Last year I tried meditating, but didn’t manage to integrate it as a regular part of my life in order to be able to benefit from it in the long term. Ironically, when trying to meditate I feel the strong urge to be doing something else, as if it is just a waste of time. Becoming more aware of this pressing need to do has lately become part of my plan to restructure my life in order to take into account my long term health, not just a few years from now, but into what would be considered old age, 40 years or so from now.
I am prioritising mental health, and physical function for the sake of my future selves, and it is clear to me now that relaxation is not only the key to my movement problem, but is the key to reversing the ill-effects and preventing other long term troubles caused by stress.
With these insights I recently did a little searching in order to find some guidance on how to become a relaxed person; someone who carries themselves with grace and ease. While there is a lot to be found in relation to mental health and wellbeing – meditate, exercise, socialise, there was little help in answering my movement-related questions.
While reading an entry in the skeptic’s dictionary I clicked a link and found myself investigating alternative physical therapies and wanted to know what exactly the Alexander Technique was. I had heard of it once or twice, and knew little except for its name, which is precisely how it still feels now, even after a little digging.
If we ignore the worryingly long list of ailments it is sometimes purported to help with, and concentrate on looking at it as a method of mind-body training for postural purposes, the Alexander Technique appears to be about re-training your muscles to work more efficiently, more importantly, to teach your muscles to relax when they are not needed.
Many people say that having a teacher of the technique is imperative, and based on the seemingly esoteric cues and descriptions often used, it’s not surprising that trying to learn alone may lead to frustration. But as some have rightly pointed out, the inventor of the technique created it himself without any guidance! So with this in mind I have set out, not to learn the Alexander Technique, but to create my own, in order to fulfil my personal needs and goals, exercising autonomy and living by my own strength.
I am not entirely in the dark though, and have some clues as to where to begin looking, firstly, thanks to the research on implicit motor learning it seems even more clearer now that efficient movement is not accomplished through conscious effort, and that explicit cueing can actually hamper learning and consequent skill retention.
Having already discovered over a decade ago the concept of imagery, and that it was something I had naturally been unconsciously using, this research illuminates in detail the mechanisms behind the effect while opening the way for new areas of interesting application.
The other inspiration on my journey is the concept of explosive power in Chinese martial arts, like Fa Jin in tai chi for example. Transitioning from a motionless state to one of full force in a split-second requires not only the ability to contract the muscles maximally and rapidly, but also to relax them just as easily. Alternating contraction and relaxation of the different muscles/groups therefore provides the basis for my relaxation method.
During my first session I experimented as follows:
– Allowing the arms to swing while walking, overly emphasising the swing followed by “blocking” a particular joint in order to alter the movement. (Shoulders loose/elbows bent, all loose, shoulder stiff/elbow loose)
– Lifting at the elbow then relaxing
– Lifting elbow then shoulder, relaxing all together
– Lifting both, relaxing one at a time (essentially focussing on one area while varying the sequence and other joints involved)
– Lifting arms to the side then relaxing (varying the movement along different axes)
– Using an outside force to move the joint through various angles and rangers
– Using the opposite hand to hold and manipulate the joint (when bending at the elbow it becomes hard to relax at end range, and harder to release the limb after a pause. This is contrary to a pulsing motion in which the limb is progressively brought closer to end range while in constant movement. Holding onto a piece of clothing makes it easier to suddenly release the limb. When flexed maximally the bicep does not release easily, and the muscle holds the arm in place.)
– Using the opposite hand to move the limb so that it comes into contact with objects in the environment. (Relaxing the fingers and wrist too)
– Being in contact with the floor/wall/object with a relaxed limb, then alternating between a contracted and relaxed state.
– Contracting/relaxing through partial ranges in a stuttering-like fashion.
– A long tense period followed by a long relaxed period
– A short tense period followed by a long relaxed period (so far, only moderate tension has been used)
– A brief experiment with the right leg, but it’s clear that the setup will need to be modified as it is too hard to hold your own leg and relax. ( The leg muscles themselves seem much more tense compared to those of the arm, or perhaps they are just physically bigger?…)
When holding the opposite limb it can be seen that the muscles themselves attempt to control the limb as it “anticipates” the movement. Slower movements may help.
Repetition and patience are needed, and it’s probably best to work on one joint at a time, and to avoid trying too many areas or variation within a session. As it is difficult to get any muscle to relax, by focussing your efforts you will see (feel) more change/improvement which is an essential motivating factor in continuing to pursue the search.
Throughout the session I focussed on what I was doing and at times casually visualised or created imagery to help me relax. I imagined the ends of my limbs (forearms) to be really dense, and thus feel heavy in the supporting hand. I imagined my arms falling to my sides as if a switch just turned them off. Another image is the thought of a tense muscle turning to liquid or becoming soft and supple like an elastic bread dough. I try to be loose about the visualisations because they must feel natural and personal in order for them to work best: there is no universal cueing standard!
My hypothesis is that perhaps there is a sort of reverse irradiation (innervation) that occurs with relaxation, meaning that once one muscle or group of muscles stops contracting unnecessarily, it makes it easier for other muscles, either adjacent or of the same limb to relax also.
I also experimented with timing my breathing to coincide with tensing (held breath) and relaxing (breathing out).
Certain movements were performed with my eyes closed in order to concentrate on feeling rather than seeing.