Posts in Alexander & Ergonomics
Archer's Bow and Shortened Hamstrings: More Markers of Occupation

Yesterday I wrote about the markers of occupation, the way our activities can shape our bodies over time. My friend Todd sent me a dramatic example from the military history of the middle ages: a lifetime of drawing the longbow was visible in the long dead bodies of archers.

We can actually identify a longbowman’s skeleton by the damage they have done to their bones; otherwise rare defects show up along the shoulder blades, wrists, and elbows. The act of drawing back hundreds of pounds of force every day, hundreds of times per day, strained ligaments and bones to such an extent that some skeletons even started growing extra bone to compensate. Their devotion to their skill permanently changed their bodies enough that we can still identify them hundreds of years later.

Our modern markers of occupation are quite different from the English archers. We are much more likely to be changed by the extreme sedentariness of our modern work environments.

The solution, of course, is to move more, and so people exercise. As important as exercise is, there’s new research that suggests that sitting all day is so detrimental to our health that all the exercise in the world isn’t enough to undo the damage—if we continue to sit all day.

This point was reinforced by a recent piece by Brook Thomas on stretching. Sitting all day shortens the hamstrings and so people try to stretch them to increase their length. Why does this often have so little effect? Thomas argues that it’s not just that the physical substrate of the muscle needs to be stretched. The nervous system needs to reset its expectations about what is possible:

While working on the Liberated Body Short Hamstrings Guide, I kept coming back to the issue of how the hamstrings function, in some chronically short-hamstringed people, as an emergency brake. This kind of compensatory pattern happens for plenty of reasons, but top among them might be under active deep core musculature, too rigid core musculature (yes, underactive and too rigid can come together), weakened adductors, and more. If these or other key stability structures can’t fully do their job, the hamstrings are at the ready. They sub in for a lack of support elsewhere by battening down the hatches...

If your car were parked on the edge of a cliff and was held there only by its emergency brake, would you release it? Not if you are sane. This is the same decision your nervous system is making when you attempt a forward fold and are stopped prematurely.

To bring about a change in the structure of the musculature, both mind and muscle have to be taken into account. The best way to do this? Change what we do each day.

The way to approach rehabilitating [short hamstrings] would be to move with more normal hamstrings length more frequently. For example: to use a standing desk for all or part of the day, to sit on the floor with our legs outstretched in front of us (if we can accomplish that without rounding our backs, another symptom of short hamstrings), wearing neutral-heeled shoes, and to walk and to take frequent movement breaks, among other things.

The road to rehabilitation would not look like stretching the bejeezus out of your hamstrings at their absolute maximum end range for somewhere in the neighborhood of thirty and ninety seconds per day.

We have to stop dividing our lives between sedentary work and vigorous exercise. Alexander lessons can certainly help us unlearn the unfortunate habits that our work lives encourage. But work also needs to become more dynamic. Most tasks do not actually require us to sit for 8 hours a day. The same problems can be solved and the same projects completed using a variety of positions and actions. Ultimately, if the work environment changes, it will be easier for employees to take responsibility for their own health.

This is starting to happen, but it can be frustratingly slow. My sister recently injured her knees in a fall. After getting reassurance from her doctor that nothing was torn or broken (she received a diagonsis of patellofemoral pain syndrome), we talked about how she could modify her activities to help her heal. We had two priorities: cultivate length in the back to take weight out of her knees, and prevent the kind of distorted, compensatory patterns that creep in to the rest of the body after a knee injury.

She found sitting and standing still to be the hardest activities to maintain. So we talked about her options at work. Could she get up and walk around? To a limited extent, yes. If she perched on a stool with her feet on the floor, her knees would be at a wider angle than when sitting. This might provide some relief. Was there a high desk and stool that she could use to experiment and see? No, that wasn’t possible. Could she find a place to lie on her back for 10 minutes or so every couple of hours? It would help prevent compensatory patterns. No, there was no place that she could lie down.

We both were a little frustrated. My sister’s workplace is very intellectually stimulating, but it’s very physically restrictive. This is the norm in many work environments, not the exception.  At some point, our office places will have to change. The archers of the middle ages had no choice about practicing with the longbow—it was demanded by the king. But we don’t owe such fealty to our employers. We owe our work work. We don’t owe work our health.






Distractible, Tired & Slouching: The Wondrous Effects of Sitting All Day at School

I’ve been writing this week about how music teachers can help their students find poise without resorting to nagging them about their posture. Music teachers often bring a great deal of ingenuity to teaching technique and musicianship, but then resort to simple exhortations like “sit up straight” or “stand tall” when teaching poise. From my work as an Alexander Technique teacher, I’ve learned that poise is a subject just as worthy of creative study as, say, vibrato in string technique.

As much as I enjoy giving this advice, it's a little unfair. After all, music teachers don’t teach in a vacuum. If their students show up distractible, tired and slouching to their lessons, it’s not the fault of their music teacher. Their students could just be sitting all day in school.

Two recent posts brought home to me the extent of the challenge. The first was a piece in the Washington Post by Angela Hanson, a pediatric occupational therapist. She wrote about her work with children with attentional issues in school. She argues that children require a minimum of outdoor play—unencumbered movement—in order to develop attentional control.

She describes working with a 6 year-old boy who was struggling to connect with his peers and pay attention in school. He attended her TimberNook camp over the summer, which gives children a week of immersion in the woods.

In the beginning of the week, he consistently pursued total control over his play experiences with peers. He was also very anxious about trying new things, had trouble playing independently, and had multiple sensory issues.

Amazingly, by the end of the week, he started to let go of this need to control all social situations. He also started tolerating and asking to go barefoot, made new friends, and became less anxious with new experiences. The changes were really quite remarkable. All he needed was time and practice to play with peers in the woods—in order to foster his emotional, physical, and social development.

When Hanson met with the boy’s teachers at the start of the fall, she told them that he needed an hour of recess a day at minimum. The teachers were sympathetic, but they told her that the maximum they could do was 15 minutes a day. Curricular demands—especially preparing for standardized tests—made that amount of recess time impossible. For a 6 year-old.

The second piece was published on Grant Wiggins’ blog. An anonymous teacher wrote about her experience shadowing two students at her high school—first a 10th grade student and then a 12th grade student. This was her first takeaway after two days of being a student at her high school:

Students sit all day, and sitting is exhausting.

I could not believe how tired I was after the first day... In every class for four long blocks, the expectation was for us to come in, take our seats, and sit down for the duration of the time. By the end of the day, I could not stop yawning and I was desperate to move or stretch. I couldn’t believe how alert my host student was, because it took a lot of conscious effort for me not to get up and start doing jumping jacks in the middle of Science just to keep my mind and body from slipping into oblivion after so many hours of sitting passively.

I was drained, and not in a good, long, productive-day kind of way. No, it was that icky, lethargic tired feeling. I had planned to go back to my office and jot down some initial notes on the day, but I was so drained I couldn’t do anything that involved mental effort (so instead I watched TV) and I was in bed by 8:30.

Of course, we know that students sit all day and that sitting is tiring, but after years of standing in front of a class—lecturing, able to move around—this teacher had forgotten. And lest we put all the blame on American public schools, this teacher taught at a private school overseas.

In case these two pieces don’t depress you enough, what does sitting all day do to the back? The old adage, “If you don’t use it, you lose it,” applies to the coordination of the back as much as anything. Sitting weakens the back. The c-curve slump that chairs and desks encourage becomes locked into place, as connective tissue hardens to support the collapsed posture. Many students appear to grow into their chairs: you can still see the shape of the chair in their back when they stand up. After years of sitting, they can’t “sit up straight,” even if saying “sit up straight” was good advice. Their backs are no longer responsive to the command.

Yesterday, I wrote about Kyra teaching a cello lesson to a five year-old. She found a creative way to help her student find poise without saying, “sit up straight!” As I wrote at the end of the post, one of the reasons that her strategy worked was that she was teaching a very young child, who still retained a lot of mobility. She might not have had the same luck teaching an older student. In my Alexander practice, I find that it takes several lessons before teenage and college students—as young as they are—start to rediscover the coordination of their backs.

The regimented sedentariness of many schools is a huge problem. It impacts student learning, creativity and health. Because of this, Alexander Technique and music teachers are natural allies. They can team up to bring more rhyme and reason—not to mention movement and poise—to how we teach our children, both in school and out.






Your chair's Killing You, Now What?: Galen Cranz on 99% Invisible

Galen Cranz was on last week’s episode of 99% Invisible, the radio show/podcast about design with Roman Mars. Cranz is a professor of architecture at Berkeley and a leading proponent of body conscious design, the idea that designers should spend at least as much time adapting things to us as expecting us to adapt to things. Cranz published The Chair, Rethinking Culture, Body and Design in 1998. She’s also a certified Alexander Technique teacher—and a highly esteemed one. She was a featured speaker at the 2013 annual conference of the American Society for the Alexander Technique here in Chicago.

I was excited that she was going to be on the podcast and the episode is worth a listen—you can find it here. It traces out the argument that Galen makes in The Chair. She explains that In the 20th century, we transitioned from an agricultural to a manufacturing to a service economy. The chair became the dominant object in our lives as sedentary work, done mostly while sitting, took over manual labor. But chairs weren’t designed to fit our bodies. People started to suffer from back pain and repetitive strain injuries, which inspired the development of highly adjustable, ergonomic chairs, like the Herman Miller Aeron chairs. Even with highly-engineered furniture, the health effects of sitting all day are still terrible. “Sitting is the new smoking,” and all the exercise in the world won’t make up for sitting eight or more hours a day.

So what’s the solution? Producer Avery Trufelman goes to Cranz’s house and marvels at her collection of mis-matched furniture. She applauds Cranz’s “gusto” at bucking the conventions of normal sitting.

When she’s out in public and gets tired, Cranz opts to kneel, or squat, or lie down. “I lay down in a bank and someone asked me if I was having a heart attack,” Cranz says. “I understand. But I said no, I’m fine, I’m resting because the line is so long!”

Cranz advises against using back support—it weakens the back—and suggests using stools to perch on and lounge chairs to recline. The solution, she says is variety—“The next posture is the best posture.” And Roman Mars intones, tongue-a-bit-in-cheek, “We don’t need fewer chairs. We need more. Bring us chairs. All of the chairs!”

99% Invisible is great radio—like Radiolab or This American Life. But I felt like this episode ended having made only half of Cranz’s point. Great design will only take you so far. Health and well-being require education. As she writes in The Chair, “We need better objects and we need to take responsibility for how we use ourselves while using them.”

It’s been my experience that when my students come to their first Alexander lesson complaining of pain from sitting all day, they're not in a condition to take advantage of varied furniture. They’ve lost the ability to sit without back support, or to lie on their backs without puzzling discomfort, let alone squat.

Great design will only take you so far. Health and well-being require education. As she writes in The Chair, ‘We need better objects and we need to take responsibility for how we use ourselves while using them.’

When I was around 21 and still in college—a couple years before I started studying the Alexander Technique—I got into an argument with one of the teachers at a summer music festival. During orchestra rehearsals and concerts, several of us—myself included—were crossing our legs if we weren’t playing for long periods of time. She thought it looked unprofessional and told us to put both feet on the floor. I told her that the chairs were too low for me and that if I didn’t cross my legs, my back would hurt. Crossing my legs was the only thing that kept me from being in pain.

The story embarrasses me now. There was nothing about crossing my legs that was good for my back. In fact, you could argue that crossing your legs is positively bad for your back. But I was used to it. I liked how it felt, and I would fight with my teacher for the right to do it on stage. It was only after I had taken some Alexander lessons that I started to unlearn the habits that were causing my back pain. It was empowering—even if a chair was too low for me, it couldn’t hurt me.

Back in 2010, I went to see Galen Cranz give a talk about The Chair at the Chicago Humanities Festival. Afterwards, I chatted with a man in the audience who had spent the previous few years working on a new chair design for the workplace. He had incorporated all the latest knowledge about healthy human movement, and his design let workers be more dynamic at work. Yet when he tried out a prototype of the design at an office, the workers ended up pushing all the new chairs to the edge of the room after only a week. They went back to their usual chairs. They were used to them.

At the end of The Chair, Galen Cranz describes her ideal work environment. It’s a place where you can work sitting down, perching on a stool, or standing up. You can take a phone call lying on your back. You can squat to reach low files and stretch high to reach the top of shelves. It’s a place for adaptability and movement. The world would be a better place if Galen Cranz was in charge of designing it, and part of the reason is that she knows that people and furniture need to be equally adaptable. We Alexander teachers can help Cranz in her mission by making the Alexander Technique—and the importance of education—100% more visible.