A few weeks ago, I reviewed The Posture Workbook by Carolyn Nicholls, which I highly recommend. Carolyn is one of the UK’s leading exponents of the Alexander Technique, and is the founder and Head of Training at the Brighton Alexander Technique College. She was also a national adviser on clinical trials on back pain. Her first book, Body, Breath and Being, was a great success, and is the book I most often recommend as an introductory book about the Technique.
As a follow-up to my review, I was delighted when Carolyn agreed to be interviewed for my blog. What a fantastic opportunity to gain insights from the author herself! Enjoy!
Me: Some Alexander Technique teachers avoid, and even positively dislike, the word “posture,” despite the fact that many people study the Alexander Technique because they want help with it! You, however, chose to write a book devoted to the subject of “posture” and even titled it The Posture Workbook. Why did you choose posture as your subject, and what would you say to those teachers who object to the word?
Carolyn: When I first started training – back in 1979 – “Posture” was a bit of a dirty word amongst we AT teachers. We were superior to that! But back then the concept of posture was bound up with static concepts of sitting and standing straight – or a military idea of shoulders back, chest out. Or even postural exercises. All of these things required the person to “do” things with effort.
What has changed is both peoples’ understanding of posture – as a more dynamic and subtle concept – and our (well certainly my) desire to communicate what we know. Posture is a much more elastic, and subtle, business than people initially realize and we [Alexander Technique teachers] understand all the influences on it – and that it isn’t simply a physical matter, but a matter of “use.” We understand the role of breathing, thinking, directing and awareness and the global nature of effective postural thinking. I think we have an enormous amount to offer in this field.
You are so right when you say people come more and more to us for postural advise – and we should give it to them! Our job is to teach – to educate – and people want to learn.
So I chose it as my subject because I wanted to make the Alexander Technique more accessible to people who might otherwise not consider it. We (as teachers and a profession) can run the slight risk of being perceived a bit like classical music – alright for those that like that sort of thing. So I’m aiming to get a wider audience and spread the word.
I don’t think many teachers object to the P word now – not if they have thought about it in depth. Most teachers will happily tell someone what they know about posture and how it’s perhaps a bit more involved that it first seems.
Hope you like the bus! (just a bit of fun…)
Imogen: I love the bus – I only wish it were real!! And I so agree with you about the P word!
Related to that I noticed that although you also utilize the Alexander Technique term “use” in your book, it sometimes seems that you use the word “posture” almost synonymously with “use.” What do you see as the main difference between “use” and “posture?”
Carolyn: Yes – that’s right – well spotted. As the book progresses, I hope I have offered enough of a different view of “posture” for my reader to see that without an understanding of “use” there is no effective posture. As a writer, I am aware that readers are different from each other, and so I want to offer different view points that might just catch the attention of a reader who might otherwise miss the point.
Imogen: I have to confess that I only got 9/10 in your posture quiz. The question I got wrong was number 1, “I need core strength to support my posture. True or false?” I hesitatingly answered “True,” and of course the correct answer is False! However, when I then read your explanation about core muscles I realized we are actually more or less on the same page. I think that since studying the Alexander Technique myself I have re-framed what I think of as “core muscles” as not just an isolated group, and “strength” as having appropriate tone (not slack). However, it does seem to me that some tone is required in the abdominal area. Alexander teacher Deborah Caplan, who was also a physical therapist, talks about training “the abdominal muscles to support the lower back” in her book Back Trouble. What is your take on this?
Carolyn: This is a question of two halves, changing at “However.” So to answer the first half…
That’s because you’re an Alexander Technique teacher and a clever clogs [rough translation for non-Brits: clever clogs means a “know-it-all” but is a bit “friendlier!”] so you quite sensibly questioned the question!
I must admit it was rather wicked sense of humor that led me to put the quiz in. I enjoy (in a sarcastic sort of way) the silly quizzes you get in various magazines. “Are you sure you’re in love?” “Are you a country bumpkin or a city girl?” They make me laugh with their questions, so I thought I’d do my own quiz on posture- not to take the Mickey out of my readers but to intrigue them, give them a giggle (hopefully). [Another rough translation for non-Brits: take the Mickey means to make fun of!]
Imogen: Yes – I thought it was great fun and intriguing!
Carolyn: As to the issue of abdominal tone. I have no quarrel with abdominal tone at all- but what do you mean by it? How do you get it? The idea of training the abdominal muscles to support the back makes me uneasy – simply because that concept tends to take people down the “isolate the muscle group” road – which is not helpful in the long run because it tends to lead people to shorten. BUT!!! If you do something – say a yoga pose for example – with lengthening and release as your priority, you will undoubtedly tone your abdominal muscles because they will be doing the work to get you into what ever shape it is. So for me it’s a matter of applying the principles – then do what you like!
Different individuals will want different things form their belly- a wind player will certainly want more tone than I do, but if lengthening is the priority then THE ACT OF WINDPLAYING itself will recruit what’s needed.
I talk about this issue in relation to singers in my previous book – Body, Breath and Being.
As AT teachers we get a bit scared about people “doing” things. But you have to do things! Sometimes those things are highly specialized. All I am suggesting is that you get to know “glorious neutral” first. Getting there is a matter of practice and experience – and changes the background level of tension/effort you use to do anything at all- that’s what I want to address- the global before the local. Hope that makes sense!
I was interested to read about your advice on chairs while working at the computer. I’m wondering what you think of my latest acquisition?
It’s called the Tilt SeatTM and is similar to the posture stool you show in the book, but it’s chair height (actually a little higher). I believe it was inspired by the writing of Galen Cranz (AT teacher and architect, author of The Chair), and so far I’m liking it very much. I was also interested to read that you alternate between a regular chair and a posture ball. I tried using a ball briefly, but found it much too mobile – any advice to solve that?
Carolyn: I like the look of that, you have your feet on the floor so you’ve got two nice contact points- feet and sit bones – to help you get bit of “up.” Is the height adjustable? (Imogen: You can purchase different heights based on your size – being short, I got the smallest one!) Long legged bods like me might need it higher – and the tilt is also something that is a bit more individual than we would think. My one reservation is if the tilt is too much? But to be honest I couldn’t tell unless I sat on it.
I think the biggest thing about sitting is to do it as little as possible. That’s why I like the ball – it is very mobile and makes you wriggle – so you tend to get up a lot and kick it away in annoyance! I go through phases with it (the ball) – sometimes I love it, other times not so much. I do love my solid Victorian chair though. Occasionally I stick a wedge cushion on it which imitates the tilt chair, but as much as possible I move about. I do sometimes type standing up too (with my mac on a cardboard box).
Imogen: In your book, I found the extracts from Trevelyan Harper’s diary about his Alexander Technique journey fascinating. Later on you also encourage your readers to journal about their experiences and progress in working with different exercises. Is this something you typically ask of your own pupils? If so, how did the practice start and what do you see as the benefits?
Carolyn: He kept a great diary didn’t he! Have you seen him on my video on www.postureworkbook.com dressed like a pirate playing guitar and singing rock/funk/whatever it is?
Imogen: Yes – great fun!
I think the benefits are similar to any form of journaling – when we improve we usually forget how bad we were – which in itself is not necessarily a bad idea, and most likely a human survival trait. But occasionally people need a reminder about how they got the improvement they now take for granted – and to realize it came because they made changes – so it encourages them to keep up the good work!
I get my training course students to keep a journal – in fact I teach them reflective practice skills (see Congress papers 2004). It comes from my MA in Alexander Technique Teacher Training that I did in 2003 at the University of East London. I was taught reflective practice from an academic perspective and I adapted it for my purposes.
If I’m running a public course I sometimes suggest it – I don’t often suggest it to individuals simply because most of them have so little time I don’t want to put them off.
Imogen: It’s unusual for Alexander Technique teachers to recommend exercises apart from Constructive Rest (which many would not call an “exercise”). What prompted you come up with your “postural five-a-day” and the other exercises in the book, and how might these differ from other more typical exercises?
Carolyn: Ah! The wicked sense of humor again – it’s like your 5-A-Day fruit and veg. I used that as my model! I built it from the Directed Activities we do on the training course to explore things like inhibition/direction and so on. Particularly the shoulder rotation – which many people simply can’t do, but when you set about it as I suggest it can help to highlight just how the shoulder girdle responds to the whole of you (always a good idea!). As for the word exercise – well living is an exercise isn’t it… walking upstairs is an exercise. It’s just a matter of explaining what you mean by it- offering a different viewpoint and not letting the gym bunnies highjack the whole thing!
Imogen: Like you, I’m a strong believer in the benefits of Constructive Rest (or Active Rest as you call it), which is pretty much the cornerstone of your “postural five-a-day.” I sometimes have my students rest their legs over a bolster or pillows, or, particularly if they have low back pain, over a low piece of furniture so the legs form a right angle with the torso. While the legs aren’t as “lively” I’ve found it helps people who have a lot of holding/pain in the lower back and hips to let their legs be completely at rest. What are your thoughts on these alternatives?
Carolyn: Yes – that’s all good stuff at first. I like to see that their feet are resting against something – a wall – the back of the chair if their lower legs are on the seat. Anything will do. But it makes a big difference. They still get the relief, but they also get a bit of activity in the legs and a better connection of the legs to the back – which is what you need to work on in “low back pain” people. Try it out and you’ll find that they are more lively throughout their whole body. This contact under the feet imitates being upright a bit. As things improve you want to wean them off the legs being raised and back into good old semi-supine. This is because the lower back/leg relationship is more challenged in semi-supine and more likely to stimulate improvement once the pain has calmed down a bit.
Imogen: As I mentioned in my review, I really like the right-angled body lengthening exercise. I also found the “lively palm” exercise fascinating.
Carolyn: Did you read “Delightful Digital Directions” in the AmSAT mag a couple of years back?
Imogen: I’ve just looked it up – thanks!
I’d never quite directed my hand that way before, and I must say it’s very effective. Is that part of your standard teaching repertoire?
Carolyn: The idea came to me during a period of recovery when I had to lie down a lot (in bed and on the sofa ) and got bored stupid.
I teach my trainees to do this when they are ready for it. I use it all the time in my own teaching – with variations. It’s lovely! I use it to play the piano. I teach it to some pupils – I taught it to Trevelyan to help him use his hand better- he loved it.
Imogen: I feel that The Posture Workbook is really useful as a companion book for anyone having Alexander Technique lessons, but that it also has much to offer someone who has never heard of the Alexander Technique.
Carolyn: Thank you – that was my intention – to reach a wider audience.
Imogen: Some AT teachers express concern about anything that suggests the Alexander Technique can be learned from a book, in particular because of the faulty sensory appreciation issue. How would you respond to that?
Carolyn: Let them write their own book…!
Imogen: Well there’s a challenge to end with!! Thank you so much, Carolyn, for agreeing to do this interview. I’ve learned so much, and know my readers will too.
For more on Carolyn’s take on posture and the Alexander Technique, check out this podcast from BodyLearningCast.com:
You can find Carolyn on the web at:
The Posture Workbook can be purchased from Amazon.com.
If you have any questions or comments about anything in the interview, please use the space below! We’d love to hear from you!