What We Talk About When We Talk About Posture: Supplemental Materials

Thanks so much for attending the workshop, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Posture.” I’m currently planning small group Alexander Technique classes for music teachers for July. If you are interested, please email me. If you are interested in studying the Alexander Technique privately, you can learn more about lessons here.

Wobble Board Balance:

Wobble boards are a great teaching tool for understanding balance. Wobble boards are easy to find. I bought mine at Target for about $20. There are many options: I recommend that you find a wobble board that is moderately tippy. It should be precarious enough to learn about balance, but not so precarious that you fear for your life!

Important point: Using a wobble board to refine balance is different from using the wobble board for rehabilitation. Many people use a wobble board to recover from an ankle injury. In rehabilitation, it is not important to stand in “perfect” balance, since the point of the exercise is to reintroduce movement to the ankle joint(s).

Before using a wobble board while playing or singing, it’s important to look at how to stand easily on the wobble board. In the workshop, we looked at three important strategies:

It is helpful to understand the architecture of the lower leg and foot in balancing on a wobble board. Notice that our weight goes down through the  back half  of the foot in simple standing balance. If you center your foot on the wobble board, your weight will go through the back half of the wobble board, not the center. Image from Jennifer Johnson's book on body mapping, "What Every Violinist Needs to Know About the Body."

It is helpful to understand the architecture of the lower leg and foot in balancing on a wobble board. Notice that our weight goes down through the back half of the foot in simple standing balance. If you center your foot on the wobble board, your weight will go through the back half of the wobble board, not the center. Image from Jennifer Johnson's book on body mapping, "What Every Violinist Needs to Know About the Body."

Tip #1: Put your center of gravity over the center of the wobble board. People tend to center their feet spatially on the wobble board, which puts their weight on the back half of the board. A simple rule is to line up the front of your ankles with the center of the board. 

Tip #2: Ground the first foot on the wobble board and then look up before putting your second foot on. People tend to stare intently down at the wobble board until both feet are on the wobble board. This makes looking back up quite difficult, since the movement of the head is destabilizing. Plant the first foot, then look up, then bring the second foot onto the wobble board.

Tip #3: Broaden your attention and use imagery to stabilize your balance. It’s easy to get into an “analytic” frame of mind and try to correct every perturbation consciously. Balancing is easier when you broaden your attention (you might look out the window or take in the periphery of your space) and practice using imagery (for example, “I’m a cloud,” or “I’m a tree.”)

Once you or a student has mastered standing on a wobble board, you can introduce more complex tasks—like holding an instrument, playing passages of varying difficulty, etc—while standing on the wobble board. It is also interesting to put the wobble board on a (level) chair and practice while sitting on a slightly unstable surface. 

Note: balance (not falling over) is related to but is not the same as posture (not collapsing from external or internal forces). It is quite possible for people to stand with a collapsed posture while still balancing on the wobble board.

Using "Slow Standing" to Work on Postural Coordination:

Slow standing in an untrained subject, from Tim Cacciatore's research. You can see that the subject can't maintain the slow speed, and uses momentum to lurch out of the chair.

We spent a good bit of time looking at slow (or quasistatic) standing as a way of clarifying postural coordination. In slow standing, gravity generates the force to stand: the back "resists" the pull of gravity by maintaining length to slow down the movement. The hip and leg extensors are put under stretch, and when the back has tipped forward far enough, they "release the spring" and stand you automatically. 

Slow movement (like long tones in wind playing or slow bows in string playing) are very exacting procedures. We can learn a lot about our patterns of coordination from practicing slow standing: it requires the ability to maintain length of the back, freedom in the hips, and noticing when we "cheat" the movement and add momentum back into the exercise. 

If you want to learn more about procedure, read Tim Cacciatore and Patrick Johnson's essay, "The Physics of Sit-to-Stand." Tim is a research neuroscientist specializing in motor control and Patrick Johnson is a former research physicist. They are both certified Alexander teachers. The essay is pitched to Alexander teachers, so you might need more experience with the Alexander technique to understand it completely.

Slow standing by an AT teacher from Tim Cacciatore's research.

Important point: in the workshop, I talked about the idea that people "lose" their postural coordination through the extreme sedentariness of modern Western life. Tim Cacciatore suggests that there are two basic strategies used to solve postural problems (not collapsing): we either brace against the force or we match the the force. When we say that people "lose" postural coordination, we mean that they can no longer use a matching postural strategy, and can only brace. Overlearned bracing posture strategies may explain some chronic pain problems. 

Quasistatic standing (and other AT chair procedures) is a way of relearning matching postural strategies. In slow standing, the back is required to exactly match the pull of gravity. A feature of this matching strategies is distributed muscle tone across the back, not localized, held muscle tone in one area of the back.

Posture Etiquette:

If you are interested in learning more about the history of the "posture wars" in the US, check out "The Rise and Fall of Posture in America," by David Yosifon and Peter N. Stearns. If for some reason that link breaks, email me and I can send you a copy of the PDF. I reflected on my own implicit assumptions around the posture of my students in this blog post, "When A Slump Becomes a Slouch."

The Postural/Structural/Biomechanical Model (PSB):

Eyal Lederman is a key figure in the critique of the PSB. He is a PT based in England and has written a number of influential papers, including "The Myth of Core Stability" and the "The Fall of the Postural-Structural-Biomechanical Model in Manual and Physical Therapies." These are in depth and detailed critiques of common assumptions in mainstream movement and physical therapies from within the profession. He has also written a paper detailing what he thinks would be a better approach to rehabilitation: "A Process Approach in Manual and Movement Therapies: Beyond the Structural Approach." 

Another key figure in the reassessment of structural postural methods is Greg Lehman.

One caveat: as Lederman's work has received mainstream press attention, I believe he is oversimplifying and arguing that people should ignore posture entirely and just go with what is "comfortable." It's one thing to question assumptions behind mainstream interventions for chronic pain and injury, and another thing to toss out the idea of better or worse posture entirely. I think that Tim Cacciatore's work shows one possible way we can work productively on posture without focusing on the "core" or imposing structural symmetry.

Alexander Technique and Music Teaching:

The Alexander Technique takes a developmental approach to postural coordination. I've written a few blog posts where I talk about ways that I've used Alexander teaching ideas to teach musicians of various ages:

"Pas de Clarinette: Histories of Movement."

"You Don't Have to Say, 'Sit Up Straight!'"

"The Knee Brain: Connecting Mind & Movement with an 8-year Old."

Sometimes Not Breathing is Believing

One of the biggest factors affecting music students is that they are sitting all day at school. If you like to learn more about how you can help students with the challenge of sitting, read about Richard Brennan's chair cushion project from Ireland. Several AT teachers in the US have recommend this supplier of "cello cushions," which could be used to even out backward sloping chairs, as in the Brennan project.

You can also advocate for better chairs in the institutions where you work. Simple, level chairs with firm support are best. Backward sloping chairs should be eliminated.


Tom Koch, an American AT teacher teaching in Amsterdam, has an introduction to "special spines," which includes a brief discussion of scoliosis.

Galen Cranz, author of The Chair, has recorded a four part video about her experience with scoliosis. The last part specifically addresses her training in the Alexander Technique.


Books on the Alexander Technique

There are many books about the Alexander technique. Here are a few that I recommend:

F.M. Alexander, The Use of the Self

Pedro de Alcantara, Indirect Procedures; Integrated Practice; The Integrated String Player

Judith Kleinbahn and Peter Buckoke, The Alexander Technique for Musicians

Rebecca Nettl-Fiol and Luc Vanier, Dance and the Alexander Technique

Steven Shaw and Armand D'Angour, The Art of Swimming

Jennifer Johnson's What Every Violinist Needs to Know About the Body is an excellent introduction to body mapping.