Does your Postural System Need Tuning?
(Article summary – 4 minute read)
Written by: Suzanne Powell
Scientists in the Alexander Technique community have recently affirmed that lessons in The Alexander Technique do indeed re-train the postural system of our bodies, and the postural system is not under our conscious control!
We have two different types of musculature. We have the superficial, movement muscles and the deeper, postural muscles.
When the superficial or movement muscles are overactive, they take over the job of the postural muscles. This prevents the postural muscles from doing their job. The postural muscles will then atrophy or habitually contract and shorten. The end result is bad posture which causes pain and repetitive stress injuries. Why pain? Because the mover muscles were not meant to hold the bones and the body’s mechanical shape together. For example, Alexander hands-on work will gently shift spinal support from the superficial muscles such as the latissimus dorsi, trapezius and quadratus lumborum to the deeper spinal muscles such as the spinalis and longissimus. The big catch is since the postural system is not under our conscious control, we cannot get the postural muscles back online by DOING anything, like exercises or active stretching. Exercises will only strengthen the movement muscles more and continue to prevent the postural muscles from coming back online. Active stretching will stretch only the mover or superficial muscles and we may only have relief for a short while- not fixing the cause. So how do we get relief by not doing anything? Alexander lessons teach our brains through skillful gentle hands-on and verbal guidance how to release the superficial muscles that are pulling our postural muscles out of alignment and with it our bones, soft tissues and organs too.
Because we hold our daily stressors in our superficial mover muscles, the hands-on guidance which release these muscles can feel like getting a deep tissue massage from the inside out using the power of our minds! It is such a relief to release and you may float out of your lesson with less worries and stress, and with the knowledge to continue releasing unnecessary tension in the future. Our postural muscles were meant to activate all day every day without fatigue because that is their function. That is not the function of the mover muscles. They were only meant to activate when our bones and posture has shifted enough that we are moving in space. When are just sitting at the computer or standing in line at a store, our postural muscles can do that work for us, for hours without discomfort as long as we are not interfering with their functioning.
How do we interfere with our postural system?
1- We brace our mover muscles striving to create some image in our mind’s eye of what straight might look like, by tensing our abs and buttocks and pulling the chest upwards. Think military stance.
2- Exercising without awareness of body use will eventually lead to the mover muscles becoming so strong that they pull the postural muscles out of alignment. This is a big reason I had to stop weight lifting until I re-trained my postural system so that the postural and mover muscles were working together equally. However, not everyone has to cease the activity to get back into alignment.
3- And finally, how we react to daily stressors can either pull us out of alignment or continually bring us back into alignment. When we read a disheartening news article, our first reaction is to slump and we can decide to stay in that slump for the rest of the day or we can let it go and come back to a more neutral poise which will give us energy to finish our daily activities that matter most.
(Research cited below.)
I took a course with the top researcher (an Alexander teacher and neuroscientist-Tim Cacciatore) in this field and was exposed to 21 hours of lecture and discussion and many more hours of reading articles in preparation for discussion. This is my attempt to summarize in layperson’s terms why this new research is significant for you and the Alexander Technique as a re-educational system.
What is your postural system?
Notice that the scientists use the term “postural system” rather than “posture.” The word posture has 2 definitions. 1-the relative position of body parts and 2-posture has to be sustained. The word posture points to a static shape that doesn’t respond as we move around. However, we do move around and respond to our environment. We are continually matching forces like gravity and contact forces in which we are stabilizing with each movement. Our relationship with gravity is changing if we are standing versus bending over. When we contact the ground with our feet or touch another person, there is a contact force where we must stabilize within. Imagine walking through a crowd of people shoulder to shoulder and how much re-stabilization must occur to keep your balance. We are constantly counterbalancing as we move through the world. There are also tonic and phasic postural responses. When catching a fast baseball, the momentum of the catch reverberates through down to the feet activating our phasic (fast and brief) postural response system. When slowly pushing against a wall, we activate our tonic (prolonged and ongoing) postural system. The nervous system unconsciously regulates our postural tone depending upon what activity we are engaged in. Alexander lessons change and improve our postural tone making us adaptable to each situation- improving balance and stability.
Do re-training the postural muscles prevent osteoporosis?
There is some research showing that back pain is caused by fatty tissue accumulated in the spinal discs which happens when the surrounding postural muscles are not working. In this article written by the European Space Agency, it states “Astronauts have very often complained about low back pain, a subject which is being investigated as being the result of postural muscle atrophy.” And according to the article, that muscle atrophy could be the cause of bone loss and osteoporosis.
The postural muscles are closest to the bone where blood circulates and nourishes the inside of the bone and takes away waste. If the postural muscles are atrophied, the cells do not get their nourishment or waste removed. Is osteoporosis caused by the movement muscles not being active enough or the postural muscles?
Why The Alexander Technique is not like physical therapy:
The Alexander Technique is primarily concerned with the mind. Mr. F.M. Alexander (1869-1955) is known as the first Western Somatic Educator. Here are a few of the mind studies that have been done to help us understand what is happening in our mind when we think about our movement and posture.
The Tapping a Finger Study: Scientists have found that as soon as a person thinks about tapping a finger on a desk, postural muscles adjust in advance of the movement in order to stabilize the body from a known disturbance. Muscles up and the arms and back stabilize in advance of the movement. They call this APA’s – Anticipatory Postural Adjustments. Try preparing to push a wall slowly and firmly, you may notice your APA’s activating as you think about the activity of pushing the wall.
Limiting mobility study: After 1 day of a subject wearing a wrist splint signaling to the mind that there was limited movement there, the stabilizer muscles around the wrist dramatically atrophied. Making this popular phrase very real: “If you don’t use it, you lose it.”
However you can regain that movement through the brain re-training with Alexander lessons.
Close your eyes, reach your arm out to the side, and touch your nose… I’m guessing you didn’t get it spot on the first try. We don’t sense our body directly, we are interacting with a model of our body and that is how we have a sense of our body in space. The scientists say body errors are completely normal. We can re-program our body schema – a location in our parietal lobe in the brain that keeps a floorplan or map of how our body looks and where it is located in space. Try this. Let an arm hang directly down beside you. Think about your arm as releasing downward from the shoulder, down to the elbow and out through the fingers. Like a downward arrow. How does that feel? Now reverse it. The arm is going from the fingers up into the elbow and up into the shoulder. Does that make your shoulder tense and raise towards your ears? How we think about our body in space effects the nervous system and postural muscles. The body schema stores these thoughts. In the Alexander Technique, we are consciously restoring the body schema through touch and Directional words towards a more accurate mind map.
Extending your body schema:
Every time we drive our vehicle, we are extending our body schema or map to the edges of the car. That is why we are able to maneuver tight parking spots in our own vehicle versus a vehicle we have never driven before. We have mapped the edges of the car’s bumpers precisely in our schema. The body schema works spatially, so be aware of the space to the left, right, back and front of you. Likewise, there was a study done with 2 people using a two-person hand saw who sawed together with that tool for 5 minutes. When they were done their hands were mapped together, and one person could not draw a straight line when the other person was instructed to draw a curved line. Their body schemas mapped together for a short while. This may explain why the hands-on work of Alexander is necessary in order to re-program the body schema and to teach the brain how to release unnecessary tension. Each Alexander teacher spends 3+ years re-programing their own body schema and that experience is passed down. Touch also communicates the postural state and active tension patterns.
Hand arthritis study:
Researchers found that a group of patients suffering from hand arthritis all envisioned in their mind that their hand was smaller than it was in reality. Upon changing their minds through a virtual reality video recording and visually showing their hand growing and becoming bigger, the pain went away. Therefore, our own body schema maps can be re-programed to release discomfort and habitual contraction. In The Alexander Technique, we learn a set of Directions that bring the mindbody into a balanced, healthy state.
http://www.alexandertechniquescience.com/ Next workshop online in March 2020 – see link above for details.
Soliman, T. M., Ferguson, R., Dexheimer, M. S., & Glenberg, A. M. (2015). Consequences of joint action: Entanglement with your partner. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 144(4), 873–888. doi:10.1037/xge0000089
“Spatial Sensory Organization and Body Review Representation in Pain Perception” Matthew R. Longo and Patrick Haggard, Current Biology 23, R164–R176, 2013
Gilpin, H. R., Moseley, G. L., Stanton, T. R., & Newport, R. (2014). Evidence for distorted mental representation of the hand in osteoarthritis. Rheumatology, 54(4), 678–682. doi:10.1093/rheumatology/keu367