Free Our Joints!
The balance and suspension that goes on in the human body is a marvellous thing. The substantial head is balanced on the atlanto-occipital joint with only a very small contact area and the weight of the head, torso and legs is balanced over the relatively small surface area of the feet. This dynamic poise is achieved not only when we’re still but also when we’re in motion – walking, running, turning or bending.
When we’re young, we take this effortless balancing act for granted – it’s just the natural way that the body works. However, as we get older, we learn to ‘misuse’ the body in many ways. Instead of using the knees and the hips to bend, we bend in the back, often locking the knees. The more we learn to overide the joints, the more cumbersome we become. We may start to experience a lack of confidence in this balancing act as little trips and stumbles start to occur more frequently. We may buy into the expectation that our balance will start to deteriorate in old age and a fear of falling starts to creep in. We all know that falling over is much more serious when we’re older with bones being more fragile and healing taking longer not to mention lowered immune systems increasing susceptibility to infection. The fear is understandable.
The trouble is, when we are afraid of falling, we no longer rely on the natural balancing mechanisms of the body. Instead, we try to take control. We do this by tensing our muscles and locking our joints, making ourselves stiff and rigid. Not only is this very hard work, it also makes us more likely to fall over. The tighter our muscles, the stiffer our joints. And the stiffer our joints, the more difficult it will be to balance. Not only is it difficult to balance, it’s awkward to move. Try standing with your knees braced back and then try to take a step to the side. You’ll probably find that your legs are stiff and you feel that you need to shift all your weight to one side in order to move your foot.
Take, for example, the act of sitting down. Many pupils who first come for lessons are very cautious about checking that the chair is immediately behind them before they sit down. Despite this, they often end up not quite where they intended – perhaps slightly to one side of the chair or at an angle. Some pupils initially need to use a hand to feel for the chair seat as they are sitting down and others may take their arms out to the sides to steady themselves. So why has the act of sitting down become so difficult for them?
The act of sitting down merely requires the knees to go forwards and the hips to go back at the same time. The ankle, knee and hip joints engage in one easy motion. If we let this happen without trying to do anything else, we will end up in the chair with very little effort. However, when we’re afraid of falling over, we want to control this movement. Before we know it, we’ve tensed our leg muscles so that our joints become fixed. With stiff ankles we try to get down to the chair, perhaps bending our knees a little but usually fixing the hips and bending the back to try to get down in space. With locked joints, our entire bodyweight either shifts back onto our heels or forwards over our toes instead of being evenly distributed over the feet. The only way we can prevent ourselves from falling is by using our arms. Our tight legs and fixed joints have made us very precarious.
Trying to stop ourselves from falling by tightening muscles and fixing our joints is not only ineffective, it can actually increase our risk of falling. We need to free our joints by letting go of unnecessary tension so that we may experience more flexibility, fluidity and ease of movement.
Note: these posts represent my current thoughts and experience of the Technique and will probably be most helpful for existing students and new teachers of the Alexander Technique.